I was recently invited to be a guest speaker for a class in our educational leadership program and again for a class in our philosophy program. During my discussion with students, I was asked what books I would recommend they read during the upcoming winter break, and one of my suggestions was David Epstein’s excellent book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Following the class, and in these days leading up to commencement, I have been reflecting on the book’s core premise and its implications for our graduates.
In Range, Epstein refutes the idea that specialization — the deep study and practice of a single discipline — is the only path to success in that discipline. Instead, he argues that individuals who choose to become generalists (pursuing a variety of interests and exploring many disciplines) are often just as successful — perhaps even more successful — than their specialist peers. After examining the experiences and achievements of a wide variety of successful individuals, including artists, innovators, athletes and more, he concluded that in an increasingly complex world, generalists are often better able to adapt, thrive and succeed.
As an institution of higher education focused on the success of our students, it is our job to graduate generalists. After all, as we say in our vision statement, it is our aim to provide the broad range of knowledge, skills and experiences necessary to succeed — and to lead — in life:
“At Central Michigan University, we are a community committed to the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, discovery, and creativity. We provide student-centered education and foster personal and intellectual growth to prepare students for productive careers, meaningful lives, and responsible citizenship in a global society.”
Navigating wicked environments
Epstein cites the work of psychologist Robin Hogarth, who explained that in most situations in life, we are in “wicked learning environments,” or environments in which the rules are unclear, feedback may be difficult to receive or understand, and there are no coaches to guide our path. In these situations, Epstein writes, “everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines.”
Consider the wicked environment we experienced over the past two years. We had no guidebook to navigate the global COVID-19 pandemic. Guidance from health experts changed regularly, and we often received conflicting feedback from political leaders, media, and our own family and friends.
Navigating this wicked environment requires the “generalist” skills we emphasize in the General Education University Program at CMU: the ability to learn and adapt, to consider and think critically about the information we receive, to evaluate options and make well-reasoned decisions, and to shift and adapt as needed when we receive new information. We do this by emphasizing hands-on learning in the classroom and beyond, empowering students to work collaboratively to solve problems, and linking knowledge to its real-world application for the greater good of individuals and communities.
As we strive to empower students to thrive in wicked environments, we must continue to ask ourselves questions such as:
- Are we encouraging students to become deep, creative thinkers and innovative problem solvers?
- Are we demonstrating the relevance and application of knowledge gained in a single class across the entire curriculum and beyond?
- Are we challenging our students to develop a framework and foundation to consider complex situations that may not have a single “correct” solution?
- Are we raising the fundamental questions that shape our global society?
Enhancing interdisciplinary education
We also must ask if we are equipping students to address the most complex and pressing issues of our time. These multifaceted problems cannot be solved by a single discipline — they require the input and efforts of individuals representing many areas of expertise. Our responsibility as educators is to provide students opportunities for interdisciplinary education and collaboration across disciplines.
There are several outstanding examples of this interdisciplinarity at CMU now. The New Venture Challenge encourages student entrepreneurs to collaborate, form teams and launch new businesses with their peers from across the university. Team Hyena Puppet, a partnership between the Department of Theatre and Dance and the Department of Biology, fuses the arts and sciences. The Center for Learning through Games and Simulations brings together faculty from many disciplines to engage students in deep learning through play, and the Critical Engagements series offers lectures, events and activities aimed at addressing challenges with an interdisciplinary approach.
As part of our ongoing Strategic Envisioning Process, the Pathway One group is discussing opportunities to develop new and expand existing interdisciplinary initiatives, while the Pathway Five group seeks community partners to engage in these efforts. As a university, we must identify ways to institutionalize interdisciplinarity and build bridges between and among our academic and service areas.
Focus on real-world outcomes
As Epstein concludes Range, he quotes education economist Greg Duncan: “Increasingly, jobs that pay well require employees to be able to solve unexpected problems, often while working in groups … these shifts in labor force demands have, in turn, put new and increasingly stringent demands on schools.”
Although employers still demand “T-shaped” applicants — those who possess both a breadth of knowledge and experiences and a depth of understanding in a single area — we also see a growing need for individuals with highly specialized skills, especially in the fields of health care and technology. Therefore, our challenge as educators, as Epstein writes, is “how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization.”
To prepare our graduates for success in both their personal and professional lives, we must provide them the broad range of knowledge, skills and abilities employers desire as well as the technical skills necessary for their career field of choice. However, we also must empower them to be lifelong learners, capable of thriving in future wicked environments. We must equip them to be lifelong learners who can process new information, develop new skills and adapt as necessary to remain competitive.
Our university is known for providing value to our students and their families and communities. We prepare graduates not only for their first jobs, but for a lifetime of career success. We encourage them to become leaders who seek out opportunities to make positive change. We do this so that when they cross the stage at commencement, our newest alumni have the range necessary to triumph in whatever wicked environments they face.
To the 2,000+ graduates celebrating commencement this weekend: Good luck in all your future endeavors. Thank you for allowing us to play a role in your story. We are immensely proud of all you have achieved, and we cannot wait to see what you will do in the next chapter.
And, for readers looking for something to dig into over the winter break, I invite you to join me in reading Ronald J. Daniels’ What Universities Owe Democracy.