In Praise of Breadth

In recent decades, life – and education and work in particular – have has tended to narrow. What do I mean by this? Simply that students are expected to develop particular specializations very early and that this knowledge-narrowness (fueled by curricula that are increasingly based on the vocational needs of employers) is carried through to the work environment. Once these ‘job-ready’ students are inside organizations they often narrow their thinking even further until they end up as intelligent idiots – people that know a lot about very little. This is a great shame.

For instance, according to Howard Gardner, the Harvard psychologist and author, future high achievers can often be identified early by their love of topics, tasks and issues that are strictly non-core or non-essential.

Equally, the teachers and leaders that inspire students and staff are often the ones that are irreverent storytellers and distracted mavericks. And of course most great innovations come not from specialists and industry incumbents but from cross-fertilisation between disciplines, accidents and wayward eccentrics.

According to Garner, and others, breadth will be vital in the future. Computers will be expert at data acquisition and logical analysis so it will be the ability to think laterally and broadly and to synthesise large amounts of disparate information that with be the key to success.

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