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What does it mean to have a well-rounded education? Why is it better to be a generalist than a specialist?
In the context of skill sets and education, a specialist is someone proficient in one area while a generalist has a wide range of skills, which they gain from a well-rounded education. If you want to succeed in the changing workforce, it’s better to be a generalist.
Below we’ll look at why a well-rounded education will help you in your life and career, and what subjects are the most useful to learn.
Importance of a Well-Rounded Education
A well-rounded education in multiple subject areas encourages broad learning, which teaches transferable skills. In Range, David J. Epstein says basic training in a wide range of activities teaches a unique kind of skillset—one founded on instincts and principles that apply across disciplines rather than habits that apply in only one context.
A study conducted at a high-level music boarding school found that the highest-performing students didn’t practice more than others, took fewer formal lessons, didn’t start playing at a younger age, and didn’t even come from musical families. Instead, what set them apart was the number of instruments they knew how to play. The most exceptional students typically spread their practice time across three instruments.
Second, a period of exploration increases your chances of discovering a pursuit that’s a good fit for you—something that suits your inherent talents and that you’re excited about pursuing.
Extending this idea, parents should nurture exploration in their children, allowing them to discover their own likes and dislikes among different subjects and activities in both their education and extracurricular activities. Eager parents try to get their kids to skip the era of exploration by choosing lifelong pursuits for them as early as possible—often a particular musical instrument or sport. However, an externally imposed specialization is far less likely to be a good fit than one you choose for yourself. A study of 1,200 musicians showed that kids who had their destinies chosen for them were far more likely to quit later down the road.
Well-Rounded Students Have More Creative Ideas
Epstein asserts that generalists are better at coming up with new ideas and solving problems in creative ways, making them far more valuable in the professional world than specialists.
Firstly, their diverse background experience makes it easier for them to think analogically—that is, using analogies to discover commonalities between dissimilar situations. For example, a start-up CEO struggling to decide whether to sell her rapidly growing company could inform her decision by studying 20th-century farmers who discovered a massive wealth of oil underneath their land. Analogical thinking is effective because seemingly unrelated problems often have the same underlying structure, enabling similar solutions.
Secondly, generalists are better at lateral thinking, the use of pre-existing knowledge in a new context. Epstein writes extensively about cases in which outsiders with less expertise and less information about a given situation solve problems that have stumped teams of experts for years. They’re able to come up with ideas specialists never would because they’re drawing from a different background.
Lastly, the fact that creativity is all about bringing together ideas in new ways reveals the practical value of diversity in the workplace. Team members with diverse backgrounds and educations bring together diverse ideas, making it more likely that they’ll come up with something new. For this reason, scientists who have worked abroad at some point in their lives, on average, make more impactful discoveries.
Generalists Are Flexible to the Adapting World
For generations, young and up-and-coming professionals have been told that developing expertise in one particular skill or area was the surest route to professional success. As the wisdom went, the more specialized your skills, the greater your income and job security. For example, you could do just fine as a psychologist, but you could do better as a child psychologist—and even better as a child psychologist who specializes in trauma. This has been sound advice in past decades, but the working world is now at a turning point. Technology’s rapid evolution has changed the world in which you live and work, and to succeed in this new world, you need to change your approach from that of a specialist to that of a generalist.
While expertise is still highly valued, the professionals of today and tomorrow need a broader understanding to be successful. Technology is changing the world so quickly that it creates constant uncertainty as people learn about and adapt to new innovations. In this uncertain world, the most successful professionals will be those who have the breadth of knowledge to tackle problems with flexibility and agility. For example, if you’re a cardiac surgeon, your specialization colors the way you see your patients’ problems, and you’re inclined to see heart surgery as the only option. By contrast, if you’re a cardiac surgeon with some education in nutrition and holistic medicine, you’re likely to have more options to offer your patients.
Additionally, the depth of knowledge that specialists offer is increasingly available through artificial intelligence and technological innovation. Technology is commoditizing information and making it more widely available, reducing the need for specialists.
Companies that understand that the world is moving this way are already hiring accordingly. For example, recruiters at Google prioritize problem-solving skills over specialized knowledge among their job candidates. Google has remained dominant in the tech industry because of the company’s ability to evolve, and it needs employees who are just as adept at changing their roles and focus.
Essential Subjects for Students
Now that you know why a well-rounded education will get you far in life, what are the subjects that will provide students with this rich depth of knowledge? While there are many subjects schools should be requiring students to take, we’ll focus on three general areas that provide a diverse curriculum: arts, writing, and science courses.
Courses such as art, music, or film can improve your creativity skills. By extension, creativity applies to more traditional subjects such as math and science because a creative mind uses diffuse-mode of thinking. In A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakley says diffuse-mode thinking happens when you relax or just let your mind wander.
This type of thinking can generate creative ideas and creative solutions to difficult problems by allowing you to mentally step away from detailed problems and see the big picture.
Making use of metaphors also strengthens your creativity, because metaphors connect diverse concepts in your mind, which exercises your imagination. Here are a few additional tips for realizing your full creative potential:
- Produce lots of ideas. The more you produce, the more likely some of them will stand out as original or creative.
- Overcome your fears to unlock your creativity: Fear suppresses creativity.
- Be open to criticism of your work: It often provides an alternative perspective that exposes new ideas or opportunities for improvement.
- Be willing to criticize. Statistically, more agreeable people tend to be less creative, and vice versa.
Courses that encourage writing—such as language arts, literature, or creative writing—are encouraged for people who want to have a well-rounded education. That’s because no matter what career you choose or what level of education you’re in, you’ll always need to write something.
William Zinsser (author of On Writing Well) believes anyone can learn to write well, and that while many think natural talent is the key to good writing, writing is actually a craft. As with any craft, you can hone your skills by practicing good fundamentals. Even if you’re not a professional writer, you’ll find yourself in a position where you need to express an idea with words. Whether you’re crafting an email or a resume, you can apply Zinsser’s principles of writing.
English or writing courses can teach you three major things when it comes to writing:
- Simplicity: Simplicity means your writing is easy to understand. Simple writing uses common and precise words, constructs simple sentences, and omits clutter, thus making it less confusing for the reader.
- Clarity: Clarity occurs when you logically explain your idea to a reader. Zinsser believes that the writer needs to guide the reader through their thought process rather than forcing them to dissect disorganized or underdeveloped writing.
- Identity: Identity is the specific style and personality that you as an individual bring to your writing. If a reader likes your identity and the way you tell stories, they’ll read more of your writing because they’re interested in what you have to say and how you say it.
A key argument of The Demon-Haunted World is that a scientifically literate public will greatly benefit society. Therefore, Carl Sagan argues we must increase awareness and appreciation of science in the education system and the general public.
Sagan provides three reasons why science is crucial in a well-rounded education:
- Science, when correctly used, is independent of cultural biases. It tries to understand the world without glossing over the details. Science calls into question the insidious claims promoted through stereotypes. It argued against the inhumanness of Black people used to justify slavery. It dismantled the misogynistic theory that women were too unintelligent or emotional to vote or become scientists. Bigotry survives through ignorance, while science relies on understanding.
- A society well-versed in the scientific method could adequately question those in power and would not be so easily persuaded by the media. A skeptical culture, one that does not easily succumb to unscientific ideas, unfounded arguments, or appeals to their basest emotions, will help give power back to the masses.
- Sagan claims that science and democracy go hand in hand. Thus, a general understanding of science is necessary for a democratic society to succeed. Science and democracy share many principles (free exchange of information, self-criticism, objectivity, and open debate). Like science, democratic political systems strive to become better through trial and error. Government and its policies are, in effect, wide-scale social experiments. Science and democracy, though, are more than just compatible: They depend on each other. Without the freedom provided by a democratic system, science can’t flourish. Without the critical thinking and openness to debate encouraged by science, democracy falls apart.
The career world is constantly changing. With AI advancing and new technologies being created, it’s better to be prepared to switch career fields with a well-rounded education under your sleeve. Even if you’re not pursuing a career, having flexible and diverse skills helps you communicate better and think critically about everyday problems.
Do you think everyone should have a well-rounded education? Let us know what you think in the comments below!
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