Generalise before Specialising

June 3, 2015

When I graduated from university in 1997, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter delivered the commencement address.  The 1997 commencement advice I most clearly remember, though, came from a Chicago Tribune newspaper essay (pictured right) that opened with “Wear sunscreen.”  Two years later, Australian Baz Luhrmann popularised that hypothetical address in his song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” (although he changed the introduction from the "Class of '97" to the “Class of ‘99”).


At about two minutes into the song—in between the counsel to “stretch” and “get plenty of calcium”—appear these words of wisdom:


Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn't know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don't.


To me, this suggests that there's a difference between what people want to do with their lives and what they do for a living.  The former refers to calling or vocation, the latter to occupation.  I'm saddened when I see young people reduce their calling solely to their job, and, subsequently, when they are pressured to commit to specific career pathways prematurely. 

Might an educational system risk this by requiring teens to begin narrowing the academic subjects they take in secondary school?  Or by pushing some to pursue specialised degrees immediately after Year 12, even if they haven't developed a passion for their fields?  In Australia, one in five domestic students leaves their uni studies by the end of their first year, with
many citing unhappiness with their subjects as a key factor.   

A high school headmaster in South Carolina voiced a similar concern last week.  His article “Don’t push students to specialize so early” warned that modern pragmatic education is producing disenchanted graduates…rather than the flexible, interesting ones that Luhrmann refers to.  In the article, Steven Duchaney asks,


Is specialization to be ignored? By no means; it is, in due order, a benefit to our age. It is a question of when specialization begins. Currently this is as early as 6th grade — far too soon.

The high school years should [focus on education which is] general in character and well suited to developing young people who, generally speaking, do not yet know what occupation they should undertake in life.

It is in allowing the young to generalize before specializing that we allow them to discover themselves, their talents and their vocations, and serve them best — in the long run.


Some students do receive a clear sense of calling and direction in secondary school.  Many others, however, become animated by questions and topics that only emerge from longer exposure to a broader curriculum.  A general education prepares students not only to pursue a number of future possible degrees and jobs but also to become an interested and interesting person.  They key is not to narrow their scope of knowledge and interests too soon.

My advice to today’s graduates is to be strategic and take the time to generalise before specialising. 

And wear sunscreen!



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