Breadth and the powerful

December 26, 1997

A Swedish- American friend told me some 35 years ago how eager his parents had been to buy a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This was to ensure that he and his two brothers would have broad enough knowledge to do well in school and begin to climb the heights of success that the United States promised to all its immigrants.

I responded that my parents in Malaya could not have afforded the encyclopaedia, but were no less concerned that I had the kind of broad knowledge that would get me through secondary school. We also discovered something else we have in common. We went to elitist universities which assumed that we were "broad" enough and needed some narrowing. They emphasised the importance of concentrating on one academic discipline and learning to master it before we graduated. Otherwise we were either not properly educated or not marketable when we left for the real world.

Thus we both spent four years in universities thousands of miles apart, but with the common purpose of narrowing our focus in the search for knowledge so that we could emerge to claim we were economists, historians, chemists, engineers, whatever. We both graduated very proud to have joined the elites in having the right to such special expertise. We each then found that the world outside was not that impressed. And those who came after us were simply told the world wanted a different kind of elite, people with a broad understanding of its complexities and capable of coping with rapid change. Otherwise, you may have to do your expert jobs in crowded offices and grimy workshops.

If you were lucky, you would be offered in-house training to test for a broader set of talents and, if you passed that, given further broadening for higher things. If you did not accept that and decided to try for the more specialised academic fields you were trained in, you would find that the demand was now for the multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary approach for almost any problem you could name. Whatever discipline you may have started out with, it was quite inadequate and you had to make the effort to acquire some understanding of several more, however superficially. It was even thought that the more distinctive the mixture of subjects you could put together, the better chance you had to join the new elite and, more specifically, persuade your bosses that you were broad enough to tackle any problem with your multiple set of skills.

In recent years, universities in the Commonwealth have responded in several ways to this shift, some simply by offering more choices of undergraduate courses and others by adding new ones, often postgraduate degrees, which demand knowledge of more than one of the traditional disciplines. Yet others did both and exhorted students to be multidisciplinary in their approach to any problem they seek to solve. Some even went so far as to reject the idea of disciplines, and structured new courses around problems and issues that eschewed any notion of a "discipline".

Underlying the experiments was the awareness that US universities provided a more liberal education for their first degrees and were far less elitist in their educational philosophy. They did not narrow so early and, therefore, did not need to broaden so much after graduation. Indeed, in some universities, the narrowing did not occur until the doctoral level. Even then, the emphasis was on the candidate's ability to relate the research topic to larger questions of either theory or application. That was the new elitist test. Modern Asian countries this century have been all too ready to replace their traditional elites with modern ones. Whether their goals were revolutionary socialist or entrepreneurial capitalist, their increasingly complex societies required their elites to have a wider range of skills than before. The job of producing the new elites was left to universities, whether their own or those of the developed countries, which were prepared to train the best and brightest for them. On the whole, their universities were differentiated by their colonial or westernising heritage, between those which had followed Europe in their elitist "early narrowing" model and those which had learnt from the US and delayed the "narrowing" until after the first degree. The contrast remains today between those in East Asia which have been moreor less open to the US experience. All the same, the results of the past century of rapid growth in higher education suggest neither model has produced the kind of elites the modernising countries wanted.

The Japanese were the first to complain that the universities did not encourage originality, and turned directly to the US model. The various kinds of Chinese had tried them all. They had begun with European and US models. Those in Hong Kong remained British and those who transferred to Taiwan continued their US links. On the mainland, many came out of their revolutionary nightmares to reject the narrow structures they had adopted from the Soviet Union. None are satisfied that their universities are producing the right kind of elites for the 21st century.

As for Southeast Asia, what has been achieved so far does not show that their universities have produced elites for an uncertain future. When they observe that their larger neighbours in East and South Asia have not found a clear sense of direction, they are going back to the models they had followed to ask what went wrong.

Good examples of what needs to be done are the reassessments now taking place of higher education goals in former British territories such as Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. A great deal of rethinking about the American way in tackling this problem has been going on. Underlying them all is the question of how to produce the kinds of elites that will be needed.

Has the broad education accepted as the norm in the schools produced more receptive and creative minds? Can that be narrowed at the tertiary level without deleterious effects? If the narrower higher education is essential for the mastery of necessary expertise, can that be organised so that minds are not closed? Is it possible for the narrowing courses to be so designed that they activate a higher curiosity and stimulate the urge for future originality in the workplace?

This is not a matter of social engineering or the application of more and better technology. The world has gone past the stage when buying the right encyclopaedia is the answer. But it may take more than encyclopaedic high-tech facilities to repair the damage done by the narrow approaches that were once favoured.

Wang Gungwu is chairman of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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