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Degrees of misunderstanding

By James Wilkinson - posted Thursday, 20 July 2006

It is a curious fact that most discussions about undergraduate curricula focus almost exclusively on content. What seems to become easily lost in the debate is any real discussion about pedagogy. The assumption seems to be that if we can just get the content right, the teaching and learning will take care of themselves.

I could not possibly disagree more strongly.

Starting with content, we may distinguish between two traditional views of the proper undergraduate curriculum: one stressing the development of marketable skills, the other the development of broader capacities of critical thinking or character development.


We might call the champions of the former the specialists, and those defending the latter the generalists. Specialist education is advocated on the grounds of practicality, as determined by the marketplace, in that it fits graduates for immediate employment. From the point of view of society or the marketplace, the resources invested in such a degree are justified by its utility to the nation’s economy.

Those in the opposite camp feel that non-specialist education is good for something that extends beyond, or above, a purely professional degree on various grounds - ethical, aesthetic, and political - that are harder to define.

The state of knowledge today is constantly changing, especially in the areas of science and technology. Disciplinary boundaries themselves reflect human convention rather than natural necessity. They, too, are currently shifting to accommodate new academic alliances in efforts to understand complex systems such as the brain or global warming.

Thus early specialisation results in learning that will soon have to be unlearned; it also robs students of an opportunity to stretch their imaginations in order to empathise and interact with other humans whose academic training differs from their own.

But the same burgeoning of fields and increasing specialisation that makes specialised curricula problematic on an undergraduate level also creates a dilemma for the generalist. Which courses should they choose among the hundreds on offer? Are some better suited to preparing students for future specialised study than others?

What good is undergraduate education?


In the short term, an undergraduate education that trains students in a particular line of work can be defended as long as the training involves sufficient hands-on practice. But such training has an increasingly brief shelf life, and is perhaps better left to business or industry once the graduate has been hired.

Long-term, a generalist undergraduate education provides a more flexible and, ultimately, more practical type of learning. Within the framework of a moderate generalist education, it does not matter nearly as much what subject matter our undergraduates study as it does how they study it.

I believe that the best way to do this is through supervised research projects, where students go out on their own and ask questions of the world around them, the exhibits in university museums, the texts in libraries or on line, and then test their answers against the opinion and scrutiny of faculty and fellow students.

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Article edited by Allan Sharp.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited extract from the Menzies Oration given by Professor Wilkinson at the University of Melbourne on July 11, 2006. Read the full speech

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About the Author

Professor James Wilkinson is the Director of the Derek Bok Centre for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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