‘Cultivate minds that can integrate, avoid too much specialisation’

The president of the University of Chicago has defended the notion of a wide-ranging university education that cultivates the “habit of mind to integrate ideas”, in the face of employers’ demands for “specialised knowledge”.

October 1, 2010

Robert Zimmer was one of the keynote speakers at yesterday’s Times Higher Education and Thomson Reuters conference, Building a World-Class University, held at the Royal Institution in London.

Among his themes, as he looked at the past and future “evolution” of universities, were the demands placed on the modern university by the global knowledge economy.

Professor Zimmer noted that “many employers are eager to find persons who can move most easily into positions as quickly as possible, and since more of these positions require specialised knowledge…it is important, this argument has it, that universities focus students’ education on attaining such specialised knowledge.

“This, it is argued, is an appropriate evolutionary step for universities given the evolution of knowledge and society.”

However, Professor Zimmer said there are “serious problems with this argument”.

He suggested that the world is actually a complex web of networks, rather than a set of isolated specialisations.

A key feature of this network, he argued, is the need to integrate specialisations that may cross disciplines and cultures.

“Thus, an education is called for that embraces both specialised knowledge and a synthesising, integrating perspective across disciplines,” Professor Zimmer said.

“It is this – not an overly simplistic view of a world of specialisation – that we are really called upon to respond to.”

He argued that this view “implies that a liberal arts component of education is, if anything, only of more value”.

And such an education should be focused on “teaching students a habit of mind to integrate ideas, to understand problems from multiple perspectives, and to challenge conclusions that may be too deeply rooted in only one perspective”.


• For full coverage of yesterday’s conference, see Times Higher Education on 7 October.

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