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Specialization and learning

Alan Flurry

The argument of depth vs. breadth extends to all disciplines, including the most important one. A number of provocative ideas underscored in this article supporting the concept of 'Generalists' invite implicit support of the liberal arts learning environment, the time necessary on major college campus to discover and learn. The author utilizes easily graspable examples from the world of sports - the differing paths of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer to the pinnacle of their pursuits - and examines existing research to the unpack the phenomenon of 'Generalists vs. Specialists':

Over time, as I delved further into studies about learning and specialisation, I came across more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range – and that there are benefits to doing so. I discovered research showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident (a dangerous combination). And I was stunned when cognitive psychologists I spoke with led me to an enormous and too-often ignored body of work demonstrating that learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient – it looks like falling behind.


Learning about the advantages of breadth and delayed specialisation has changed the way I see myself and the world. The research pertains to every stage of life, from the development of children in maths, music and sports, to students fresh out of college trying to find their way, to midcareer professionals in need of a change and would-be retirees looking for a new vocation after moving on from their previous one.

The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivises or even demands hyperspecialisation. While it is true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s precocity and clarity of purpose, as complexity increases – as technology spins the world into vaster webs of interconnected systems in which each individual only sees a small part – we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.

Emphasis added but the examples are legion and recommend the entire article. The subject hits close to home and underscores many of the ideals we support through important combinations of the humanities, arts, and sciences that we see put to dynamic use by so many great students at UGA. A university is an enormous undertaking. An enduring education in the art of being, designed to propel in thousands of differing iterations, begins in an atmosphere of great possibility. Welcome students!


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