Map co-ordinates for general and specialised knowledge

21st March 1997 at 00:00
One of the recurrent themes in Scottish education is the tension between specialisation and generalism. This has a long pedigree. Readers of George Davie's work will be well aware of the intellectual struggles in the early parts of the century, within academe and between university teachers and the inspectorate.

The pages of The Scotsman rang with phrases such as this, from the pen of an inspector of schools in 1917: "No psychologist of repute would maintain that any one subject develops general ability. The kind of attack which suits Tacitus transfers to Thucydides but not to patent law". The riposte by John Burnett, professor of Greek at St Andrews, that the most important side of any department of knowledge is the side on which it comes into contact with every other department, has attained almost proverbial status.

What are the current trends? On one hand, material factors press the system towards greater specialisation. Applications from Scots to study at English universities are increasing rapidly, and one reason for this must be that an honours degree can be gained more quickly there and the eventual student debt proportionately reduced.

On the other hand, the separate funding council for Scottish higher education may have strengthened the longer-term prospects for the four-year degree. The prospects for devolution include defence of such Scottish traditions as greater curricular breadth.

Intuitively, I support generalism, as I suspect many do. But the question I want to pose here is how far generalism is a matter of numbers of subjects studied, whether in school, further education or university. There is a danger that the argument comes down to one about whether five Highers or a four-year degree is better than three A-levels and a three-year degree.

If generalism is defined in terms of the number of fields covered, it seems to me more vulnerable to the criticism that a generalist is someone who knows more and more about less and less. This is a crude rendering of the argument, but it is often a mirror image of the attack on specialism.

The particular danger of this line of thinking is that it sets specialisation against generalism in a kind of direct antithetical relationship. More of one means less of the other, in a zero-sum game. On the whole, this will set scientists against non-scientists, and researchers against teachers. This seems not only undesirable but unnecessary.

If we think of generalism as the grasping of relationships between subjects rather than the knowledge of them, this changes the nature of the debate. Time is still finite, so there will still be hard choices about what we can learn. Doing astrophysics will make it less likely that one can also study 18th-century Scottish literature in depth.

But the challenge of generalism is then seen as understanding how one's specialist patch relates to others, which may be close or distant on the curricular map, and of understanding how one's archipelago of less specialised knowledge patches also fit in to the overall picture. The relationships matter as much as the substance - and of course, become substantial items themselves.

Generalism involves a different level of understanding from specialisation. But I am not happy with the image that this suggests, of a hierarchy of understanding at different levels - not because I am opposed to hierarchies but because it misrepresents the relationship between the two. A helix might be better, with specialisation and generalism intertwined with each other in a permanently changing pattern.

Where does this epistemologising take us? I think it has a highly practical side to it. The issue is not whether students specialise too soon or too far, it is whether any given degree of specialisation carries with it an awareness of the relationships between it and other areas. The accumulation of factual knowledge, and its representation at exam time, will not suffice. Above all, students will learn how little they know and how much there is still to learn; and they will ask questions which may remind their teachers that much the same applies to them also.

Professor Tom Schuller is director of the centre of continuing education at Edinburgh University

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