Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Specialization is for Insects - Robert Heinlein

Not long ago, people stayed in one company and worked in one field their entire life: one profession, one workplace. The days of "one workplace" are gone, and recognition of this fact has been addressed by various professional and government organizations.

The days of "one profession" are also rapidly coming to a close. It's not only that we are living relatively long lives. It's that entire fields and professions are rising and declining at an increasingly rapid rate.

Professions such as programming, music publishing, journalism, marketing, and so on are going through radical upheavals. Even if you were to stay in "journalism", a profession that continues to be relevant, the skills and shape of what journalism is and does is in radical flux. You may as well be in a different profession today than the one you were in ten years ago.

What troubles me is not upheaval but the specialization in our universities. Today's educational model is the same one that existed 200 years ago, namely that a student picks a single field in which to get an education, with little thought to the future of the field itself. For a great amount of the four years spent in university, a student learns nothing but that field: half of the education consists of skills that are obsolete by the time the student graduates. The other half is obsolete when the field is no longer recognizable in its current form, or falls entirely by the wayside while some other new business concept takes its place.

But wait. Don't you want your doctor to have studied long and hard to perfect his special skill before he operates? Don't you have to learn through everything that has ever been written about a single topic before you can break new ground in that topic? Well, yes. It's not that people should stop learning a single topic deeply. It's that people should stop relying on a single field as a guarantee of an income.

Too often you hear about unemployed 40- or 50-somethings who despair of finding work "out of their field" because they have a single skill set and can't possibly learn a new one at their age.

We need to turn people onto the idea that acquiring new skills and being open to new passions are as important as learning the knowledge of a single field on a deep level. It is worth considering helping our students learn to be adaptable, to recognize opportunity, and to emphasize retraining as a matter of course, not a matter of desperation.

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