In the British culture, we tend put a lot of emphasis on specialisation. At the age of 13/14, we pick four additional subjects to study alongside our core, compulsory subjects. At 16, we move upper education, where we narrow down our education again, and with few exceptions, most teenagers choose around 4 subjects which we study exclusively for 2 years, and then some move up to university.
British universities involve three to-four years studying exclusively one subject. If you’re lucky, you may be able to drop into a module or two of another course, but for the most part, you only go get to experience one subject, taught in one specific way.
Whilst I was in this system, it completely made sense to me. If you want to become good in one field, why would you waste your time learning about things that you don’t care about? Whilst studying Psychology, I had no interest in sneaking into a creative writing class. I know what I am good at, so why would I worry myself about any thing else?
That is until, I started my Masters. I am currently in a Masters programme in Psychology, in which the emphasis is no longer on your memory, or your ability to identify overall themes. Rather, a Masters programme asks you to be novel, to think critically, and to experience learning almost completely independently. To read a whole genre of papers, to be focused, to create new links and to think deeply.
And at this point, I realise that I have not thought, at least not in this way, since I was in secondary school.
I have not just sat with a book in my hand, and considered what that book was trying to tell me.
I have not watched a documentary, and realised that history was repeating itself.
I have not made interdisciplinary links between ideas or forms of argument.
And back then, I didn’t even realise I was doing it. I thought my mind was wondering off, away from what I was meant to be learning, and wishing I could just focus.
This, in my opinion, is a serious concern. That 16 year old me thought I was a bad student because I enjoyed learning about a number of fields, and I couldn’t focus down onto just one. And now, a number of year focussing later, I realise how much of a ‘better student’ that made me. But more importantly, how much I miss it.
The American University system, although somewhat flawed, gives it’s students a wonderful opportunity to learn about so many different things and take part in so many different classes. This allows them to notice residual similarities between different disciplines as a side effect, as well as learning about their own passions or dislikes.
On my way back from class, I realised that the last time I had written; it had been an exam. The last thing I had read was a research paper. The last thing I read for fun was on a plane. The last time I drew something properly was when I was stuck in bed with glandular fever; bored out of my brain.
I genuinely believe that there should be more deliberate effort to experience more then our discipline has to offer. To make sure we are reading, to make sure we’re thinking.