Too Damn Specialized

Are college courses too focused? Too vocational? Even America’s best college students aren’t really so good at dealing with the hard questions that America’s leaders will face.

So writes Heather Wilson, former congressman from New Mexico (and Rhodes Scholar), in an editorial for the Washington Post:

An outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president’s health-care bill but doesn’t really know why. A student who started a chapter of Global Zero at his university hasn’t really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral. A young service academy cadet who is likely to be serving in a war zone within the year believes there are things worth dying for but doesn’t seem to have thought much about what is worth killing for. A student who wants to study comparative government doesn’t seem to know much about the important features and limitations of America’s Constitution.

The problem Wilson has found in selecting for the Rhodes Scholarship is that far too many American college students study too little.

They might study one subject in great depth but, as a result of what Wilson calls an “undergraduate specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago,” they don’t appear to know much about anything else.

These are bright students, very bright, and they’ve been very well prepared by studying everything their universities require of them. And yet, they still just don’t seem to be terribly well educated.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer