The argument against raising well-rounded kids
There’s a reason that you see so many photos of the same activities on this blog. Because I’m not a big fan of dabbling. I want the kids to find what they are great at and focus on that. There is a wide body of research to show that being great at something feels a lot better than dabbling.
We should use this research to guide education, because nowhere in the world is well-roundedness still valuable. The last time you actually needed to be well-rounded was when the landed gentry was trying to marry off one of their daughters in the 1500’s. Then, it was good to find a woman who could dance, speak a bit of French, cook enough to supervise the household help, and play a bit of piano and keep up with male conversation about politics if need be. That’s well rounded.
Why does anyone still think well-roundedness is a worthy goal? Probably because that’s what schools focus on teaching. But it’s a misguided goal. Because you make less money if you do not specialize. You do not get into a top college without specializing. And, in theory, each personality type (here are the sixteen) has special gifts, and if you have good mentoring as a child then you learn to leverage your natural speciality. Some people are great at doing things, some people are great at thinking things. Why bother forcing the doers to think? It’s not what they will be passionate about.
Elisa is a woman who sends me amazing research about homeschooling. Each day my inbox is peppered with small gifts of thoughtful analysis with links to articles that I can’t download. Like this one, about how kids who are gifted should be guided to a specialty.
Elisa is finding great articles from academic publications. I will have to tell you what they say, because even though the US government funds universities and makes the Ivory Tower possible, academics continue to publish in journals that are not free to the taxpayer. It’s absurd. I am not alone in thinking this is a colossal rip off. The Economist thinks so as well.
But that article Elisa sent me? Here’s a great quote:
Our current curricula and instruction for gifted students may very well be discouraging pursuits of scholarly productivity or artistry by focusing too much on well-roundedness. Too much focus on general education during secondary school might be robbing our young people of the opportunity to explore a topic in great depth, and to develop the beginnings of expertise. The advantage of gifted children pursuing specialization in an area of interest is that they find other young people who share their interests through the internet, out-of-school programs, or school clubs. These peer support systems provide positive social supports for pursuing academic or performance careers — at least up to university level.
The article assumes that the only gifted kind of kid is intellectual. But really, each kid is gifted in something, because that’s what strengths finder tests are all about. We each have special strengths. Maybe not strengths worthy of Carnegie Hall, but special all the same. So if we each have gifts then we should each specialize. And this is where homeschooling really matters— it can give kids freedom to find their strengths and leverage them to specialize.
You could say early specialization is too early. But we each specialize by dint of our parents’ choices. For example, city kids learn about cities. Farm kids learn about farms. If your parents love movies, you watch them. I have taken my kids to a movie one time in their whole life. So specialties start arising early on anyway; why not make them relevant to the kids’ strengths?
A diatribe against college by an anonymous professor has received lots of attention. One of his arguments is about the futility of teaching most people to write. Because you have to be a reader to be a writer. I taught creative writing at Boston University, and I totally agree. I could tell after the first assignment who read books and who didn’t.
This is true of body types as well. I was a figure skater growing up. I skated three days a week at 5am and most days after school as well. But I couldn’t do double-rotation jumps. I’m simply too large. I am tall and big-boned. I am too heavy to rotate in the air twice, even as a very skinny fifth-grader. I wish someone had told me to stop focusing on figure skating because it would never work for me. I wish someone had helped me find what I’d be great at.
On my career blog there is huge discussion about how essential specialization is as an adult, and how difficult it is to figure out what to do as an adult. It makes sense, then, that education should focus more on helping people leverage the talents they have. Many, many highly capable people are left out in the cold from a well-rounded education.
And here’s something about Elisa. She wants to figure out what to do with her career. She is so so smart and capable and interesting to talk with. But no one taught her to focus on what makes her special so that she could market herself in the workforce. You cannot really market yourself as having a high IQ. There has to be more. So she’s a good example of how if someone had helped her marshal her talents as a child, she would be more able to leverage her individual gifts as an adult. She would have the confidence that you get from having done things before, as a kid.
Very thought provoking. Could you share the citation for the article Elisa sent you? The link takes you to the journal webpage not the abstract of the article.
Thank you for writing so many interesting posts.
That’s the only link I could find the the article. It’s certainly very stingy with information, isn’t it?
Rena F. Subotnik, Rochelle Rickoff, Should eminence based on outstanding innovation be the goal of gifted education and talent development? Implications for policy and research, Learning and Individual Differences, Volume 20, Issue 4, August 2010, Pages 358-364.
This is pretty much the underlying philosophy of why I wanted to homeschool, sixteen years ago. Three kids in, I still believe it.
My oldest is now studying film at a prestigious film school, which was became his “thing” when he was about 13. Funny thing is, he tells me his degree won’t matter. What matters is the films he works on now, and the connections he makes. He just finished his sophomore year, and is doing camera work on an indie and loving every minute of it. Says he’s learning “a TON.” That means he won’t be home this summer, and I miss him terribly, but I get it. He’s doing what he wants to do. He’s not just some sophomore college student, partying and taking a bunch of general ed classes; he’s doing the real work he’s been wanting to do all along.
That’s where this kind of homeschooling philosophy can take you.
This article resonates with me a LOT. Everything post-school is about specialization, and my kids have different strengths, so why not develop it?
I feel like our highest calling as parents is to help our children discover who they were created to be and encourage and equip them to be that person as best as they can. Homeschooling is a great way to do this.
My oldest (who is 6) is an entrepreneur at heart (as am I) so we’re doing lemonade stands this summer to learn math, health (don’t put your mouth on the lemonade spout!) marketing, weather, climate (you can’t grow lemon trees in our backyard!) and all sorts of other lessons that take me by surprise and come out of it naturally.
My next daughter is 5 and she is a lover of beauty and loves stories and art. So all our teaching is done within the context of story and beautiful things.
It’s a gift and a blessing to be able to help them discover themselves and learn to grow in their passions. And I believe, as this article states, that they’ll be better off for the specializing we do anyways. Thanks for putting it into words and adding such awesome resources.
Hi Jamie, I really like your blog and thought it would be fun to compare notes. I don’t know if you’ll get this but if you do, can you please email me at paul (at) shaferpower.com? Thx!
Penelope, I’d love to hear your ideas for helping kids specialize. (My older kids are almost 6 & 8, and I’m thinking now could be the time to start.) Kids’ interests shift quickly, though. What’s your opinion on helping kids develop “stickToItness” vs. letting them dabble?
A good place to start is to give your kid a Myers Briggs test. I did that with mine. You might not be able to nail down every letter, but some will be very clear.
For example, my youngest son is two grades ahead in math. But his Myers Briggs score is clearly EFP (I don’t know about S/N) so there is no way that he’s going to grow up to be a math genius. You just don’t get people with that score who want to sit around thinking of math all day. So I didn’t push the math.
The cello playing lines up perfectly for his score. Skateboarding seems suited as well.
My older son is an INTJ. He’s a get-things-done guy. And he loves animals. So I have indulged every single thing he’s wanted to try on the farm because I think he’d make a good farmer. My youngest son would hate growing up to be a farmer, so he has very few responsibilities with the animals.
“But his Myers Briggs score is clearly EFP (I don’t know about S/N) so there is no way that he’s going to grow up to be a math genius”
From what I’ve seen and read (been into MBTI for 15 years) ENFPs- particularly men, are frequently great at math. My brother, an ENFP, was always excellent at figuring out mental shortcuts to math problems. That’s the dominant intuition at work. He’s not a mathematician, but I’m pretty sure it has helped him in everyday life.
That’s really interesting. I’m an ENFP, and I was a Mathlete as a kid, got a perfect math score on the SAT, etc. I sometimes wish I’d really pursued it. At the same time, though, I dropped math for a year in high school to study music theory and my undergrad degree was about as far from math as you could possibly get. I always ascribed it to the fact that my school had phenomenal English and language teachers and mediocre math teachers, but maybe it was more of a personality thing…
I was in that same position as a kid. I didn’t get any direction as to how to specialize so instead I was “smart” and got A’s but I have never known what to do with my life.
After getting a marketing degree and being a stay at home mom for 20 years, I’m now learning graphic design just for fun. I have never enjoyed something more!
Of course I did things differently with my own kids. They have done the minimum in subjects they are not good at and they have each found a specialty where they can excel.
I think this is the area where education fails kids. Somehow we have made it admirable to be good in everything.
Oh, and being well-rounded doesn’t have to get on the way of being a specialist. Well-rounded people are more interesting (if you have to spend a lot of time with them), and their life is more interesting because they can relate to a larger piece of the world. If the Farmer could Only talk about pigs, it probably wouldn’t be very interesting for a curious and multifaceted person like you, right?
Alina, the research simply does not support this. The only reason we believe in well roundedness is because that’s what we send kids to public school for.
But specialization makes for a better life for kids or adults. And for any type of skill set. I linked to two books that are the definitive research on the topic of specializing, and it’s pretty well established that people are happiest in their life when they can reach flow, which requires a certain level of mastery, which demands specialization.
Of course, not everyone will find mastery in their lives, but everyone would find more happiness if they could find that mastery. And what seems really significant to me is that the article about teaching kids to specialize early says that most of the onus of childhood specialization falls on the parents as guides.
I agree with Alina that well-rounded people are more interesting, but that kind of well-roundedness is not acquired at school. Only reaching mastery in one area (ok, or a few) gives one the self-confidence needed to explore more and become a well-rounded and interesting person.
School spoon-feeds kids a selection of subjects that are only rarely relevant to them. That is neither a way to mastery, nor actually to become well-rounded. In order to become an interesting person, one first needs to become interested, and kids are simply not interested in what is not relevant to them.
Personal example – i was a model student considering my grades, but school was in general BORING. In elementary school i doodled, and in high school during classes i used to read books that had nothing to do with curriculum. I’m terrible learning in a group and the regimented structure called for rebellion. Everything i’ve ever learned that is in any way useful to me, i learned in my own time, school was mostly a waste of time. Didn’t help with social skills either, i had to find out about those on my own too… My brother who is an entirely different personality type had exactly the same impression, and so did all of my most interesting friends.
I take turns becoming really good at different things, i’m a stickler for detail, and i go into depth every time. Mastery in one thing is always a stepping stone to something we find even more relevant, and so on. That way lies bliss. I’m lucky to have known flow pre-school, and i’ve certainly known it post-school, but never at school. I’m not sure home-schooling is right in absolutely every situation (for me it would have meant spending more time with abusive and tiresome parents), but there always have to be ways to encourage and support kids to find their own individualised ways of exploring the world and yes, even without the “priviledge” of dabbling in all sorts of school subjects, become interesting people. And it all boils down to accepting kids as they are.
Thank you again, Penelope, for an intriguing and lovely post.
I couldn’t agree more! I have been homeschooling for 18 years and mentoring new homeschooling families for nearly 13. I strongly believe that education should be about talent development from the earliest ages. Yes, Penelope, ALL children are gifted and it is the parent’s job to help discover and nurture those gifts. If only schools knew how to help children learn what they feel best doing and support that! Lynn Stoddard’s wonderful book, Educating For Human Greatness spells out a way to make that happen. But until it does, I will continue to nurture my own children’s special talents and encourage other parents to do the same.
I loved this post, Penelope. It’s passionate and lucid and fresh.
The only nuance I’d like to contribute is that some kids are born generalists. I know because I was one, and am one. The last time I tried to make a list of every topic I am passionately interested in, I stopped at 250.
As far as I could tell my interests bled from a core 10 or 20 areas into pretty much everything I could think of. The philosophy of needlecraft? Hell yeah…My curiosity is unbounded. Coming up to fifty, with a lifetime of study behind me, I feel like I have only gotten started. And I still love the adventure.
The world needs all kinds. It really does. And so every time you speak up for breaking kids out of the ruts society tends to plop them into so readily, I stand up and cheer. This post was one such occasion.
I would just caution that we want our born-to-be-generalist kids too, our multi-disciplinary synthesists, our coordinators and mediators, translators and polymaths to have a place in the future as well.
Let kids find and follow what they love wherever it may lead.
If they love everything–God help them–then so be it!
Thanks Mark. I would find it hard to find better words from one generalist to another. I have my “specialties” but I think I tend to trend more towards generalist. This post and your comment makes me think about my personality and temperament. It is what it is. I think the important thing is to be aware of it.
Isn’t generalist also a kind of specialty?
Those are honestly the sweetest words you have written! (on this blog, I mean)
Rr, I’ve been struggling with your little koan, on and off, throughout the day. Can’t say I have a good short answer.
It sure doesn’t feel like a specialty, because like Mark W, I have had to develop a couple of those over the years to pay the bills while I explore the interstices between fields for my own purposes.
But when I get into conversations with others whose first passion is synthesis, then it does feel like a sort of specialization. It seems like there is a certain type that is not comfortable in the fast current of the main stream of any discipline or field, but loves to wander off into the tributaries and estuaries where the waters slow down and meet. There, ecosystems are teeming with possibilities, pulsing with variety and dynamism. We may explore radically different terrain and territories, but we’re all explorers.
So I see your point.
Redrock, definitions help to find common ground. Is my dentist a generalist or a specialist? He does fillings, crowns, and other procedures but not root canals. Several years ago he sent me to a root canal specialist because the specialist is more talented in that area of dentistry – not because he couldn’t do it. I know he could do it and do a very good job. He knows and I know that the specialist is better equipped to handle any “unexpected circumstances” better than he could. He knows his profession and I really can’t imagine going to see anybody else. He works with his brother in the same office and another brother runs the dental lab which does the crowns. The office was recently upgraded with the latest imaging and other tech equipment. Also great work is done by the rest of the staff including the dental hygienists. My point is the devil is in the details (as usual) so semantics can get in the way of truly understanding something. It’s easier for me to draw lines, establish boundaries, and make black and white distinctions when I examine specifics. Here’s something else – the conclusions based on those specifics may or may not be true based on known or unknown assumptions. It’s a crap shoot sometimes. It’s life. So I think the answer to your question is yes. :)
the devil is definitely in the detail here – from my own experience I find that while I work at the intersection of several disciplines (chemistry, physics and materials science) and thus might in some respects might be considered a generalist, there are ways to approach the science which remain universal in my work and are indeed a specialty. I don’t think specialization is exclusive and does prevent generalist knowledge, it is more the question of balance (at least for me).
P.S. let me add to the previous comment: after a while one learns how much it takes to become the specialist in a certain narrowly defined area. This allows to consciously choose whether to expend the effort, or whether to take another path.
I definitely agree redrock. Well said.
I’ll give you my own specific example. I graduated with degrees in ceramic science and chemistry so I was geared toward the theoretical approach to solving problems in the workplace. However, it quickly became apparent after I started my first job that I also needed to approach problems from a varied and pragmatic perspective. I was a ceramic multilayer capacitor engineer (specialty, right?) working in the R&D dept. However, I had to learn and interface with other technical people with the same and different degrees and job responsibilities. As you know, determining and trying to separate the properties of the end product due to either just the material or the process can and is many times impossible (or at least it seems that way). One ceramic formulation (Y5V) that we sourced out was’t meeting our requirements so therefore we couldn’t make the end product and fulfill customer requests. It was a small portion of the market but frustrating that we couldn’t ship that product. The vendor that supplied the formulation told us that other customers were using it successfully. It took us and the vendor three years to make it work in our plant. Numerous processing techniques were tried including different kiln zone profiles, temperatures, etc. Results in the lab don’t necessarily translate to the factory floor. So I also got to work with another ceramic engineer (process engineering dept.) who specialized on the kilns (controllers, refractories, etc.), thermocouples, and other equipment on this problem. The problem was eventually solved by the vendor by altering the stoichiometry of BaTiO3 (Ba/Ti ratio) used in the formulation. So my generalist tendencies in my specialty made it possible for a solution. And my tenacity made it happen. Thanks for listening to a long winded story. :)
I love these kind of multi-level problems. And the fact that seemingly irrelevant things turn out to be the most important impediments to progress – and then you try to dig deeper and deeper and once you understand the problem you can also see the solution. But I also realized that it is a question of language to work with people who specialize in the adjacent field – I am currently beginning to work with a ceramist on nano-scale oxidation and we accept that we always need a few minutes to readjust our respective ways to express things. Sometimes this is the biggest barrier for communication between those who are too far immersed in their specialization. We could turn this blog into a materials discussion :-)
This is definitely yours truly, to a T! I agree. In my case, as a mom, I am having to go through a short learning curve with my daughter who is a creative person who hates regimentation, is a leader, and wondering if she is a generalist like I am, or if encouraging specializing is warranted. So I am taking her out of school to find out! I want to get to know her passions, desires etc. I forced her to go to French Immersion on the theory that when she grows up, learning a second language will no longer be an option, but the incredible amount of homework and the lack of creative outlets are killing her spirit while I watch. So I am stepping in and reclaiming her so that she can thrive, somehow. And if that means abandoning the polyglot idea that I have for her, and finding her own path, it is something I am very willing to adjust to and support. But having to break some of my assumptions about education is crucial. I loved school, everything about it. I passively absorbed all kinds of information because I love learning. But my daughter is different, there has to be a purpose to her learning, a meaning and relationship to her daily life. French holds no meaning in her daily life. Anyway, just to say that my own process of unschooling myself in order to better serve my child is a painful but necessary one.
I’m a thinker and a doer, and following my instincts hasn’t let me down yet. I’m an expert at my day job and a dabbler in my free time.
Perhaps teaching kids to trust their instincts and dabbling with a sense of purpose coincides with the point you’re trying to make…maybe?
I think each of us would naturally grow bored with dabbling. The problem is that we pretend to not be disappointed in dabbling because school does not teach us tools for specializing, so specializing looks very scary to most people.
Dabbling is inherently boring — it’s like getting a new boyfriend every year. The first six months are always the same. Telling your story, listening to theirs, learning how to have sex, figuring out their schedule, etc. You just keep doing the beginning stuff over and over again and you never grow into an adult who is forced to learn about themselves deeply from being in a long-term relationship.
Same thing with dabbling in other stuff: no deep learning, immature, repetitive behaviors.
It’s like 2 different survival techniques.
1. Always relying on the try-anything and do-anything and make it work to survive, with the underlying feeling of instability I grew up with.
2. If you commit to something specific, you’ll thrive on a more permanent surface that is reliable and under your control. If your specialty gets phased out, then specialize in something else.
I guess what I’ve specialized in is survival.
I don’t know what No. 2 would feel like, but I think I see your point.
This sounds a hmmmmmm, a bit Borg like. A bit too tiger mother. Is this the career advisor in you trying to place children into early defined roles today for their job tomorrow? It’s very confusing. If we don’t dabble some, we never realize the interconnectedness of our world. You have spoken about your own dabbling and you don’t strike me as bored or boring. Are you speaking specifically to career specialization and the trouble with dabbling, or are you saying it about people in general?
A benefit to being a part-time dabbler is I can understand issues from all sides and make better choices, but with that, it helps to know when to stop trying to make sense of contradictions.
I see a problem of definitions here. Penelope describes generalists as dabblers, and dabbling as shallow, repetitive, scratching-of-the-surface. For the brilliant people who are the self-described “born generalists” here, I see that their definition of generalist, has nothing to do with her definition of dabbling. If someone is lucky enough to be brilliant in very many different directions, possibly nearly every direction they apply themselves to, it is possible to be a generalist who is not a dabbler, but rather, a lay specialist in all directions, when that person can absorb skills and understandings in a fraction of the time that most people would require for the same result.
Much as we would wish it to be, life isn’t fair, and we are not all created equal. Brilliance in one direction does not predict poor performance in another, for some people.
Some people are so smart that the petty preliminaries of this field or that, are like skimming and re-reading things they already knew, and they progress to great ability in many areas, with very little effort or time involved, because they are SYNTHESISTS.
I know such people exist because I have known a couple. They do suffer from the hardship of knowing that they cannot live 6 lives simultaneously, but use their talents to pursue the life that is stimulating and full of challenge and reward, on their own terms, even when it doesn’t make sense to those who can only see dollar signs.
But those people also probably realize that their brilliance has worth beyond what its exploitation for profit, can provide.
Hi Penelope –
The theme of this post really struck an internal cord with me. I was a well-rounded child of the 70s and 80s (music, sports, scouts, art, etc) but was never encouraged to to be great at any one thing. Only now in my 40s am I recognizing and capitalizing on my true talents.
I find myself parenting a child who seems to enjoy skimming on the surface of many activities as I did. She shows general apptitude for many things but no specific desire to focus on something that isn’t the hot new craze of her peer group (god forgive me if I see one more monster high doll!).
I would love to see you focus a post or two on ways we as parents can help our kids identify their true talents and stick with them through growth plateaus.
parents and schools continue to push kids toward some idealized idea of a well-rounded student: good grades, extracurriculars, sports, popular, etc. virtually *all* kids will fail at becoming this über-student, so most kids end up feeling like a failure – at something they were almost destined to fail at.
it takes a huge leap of faith for parents to step away from this educational version of “put a little bit of each thing on your plate.”
if kids were encouraged early to develop more of their individual talents and learn to make the most of their individual temperaments, people would learn that success comes with a lot of variation. unfortunately, the current system is still stuck with a 50s-era idea of what student success should look like.
Maybe your violinist will be like Jason Yang :)
the kid is now touring with Madonna.
For the first time in all the time I have been reading your work (and I read long before I commented the first time), I have to admit you have me questioning some things I didn’t before. And I want to tell you, whether it matters or not, that I wanted to argue straight away with you because I am a polymathically interested person. Some of both the Marks comments above are repeats of my verbal comments almost exactly. I wanted to implore you to recognize those of us that have an endless list of interests. I wanted to say you were judging US that are not like YOU, for seeing the world different. I even thought, I will throw some of the MB specialty explanations over the net that contradict some of these assumptions you make. BUT, and it is a big but (LOL),
I knew when I was about 11-12 years old that nutrition, health and wellness of both people and the earth was my passion. My talent. Holy flippen cow, if someone else had recognized it then? How much sooner and how much pain I might have avoided has the right mentor, or as you say perfectly, “negligent parent” had noticed?
My best friends are in Seattle, SoCal, and NY and they read but won’t comment. Ladies, can you believ this? All my love, CJ
Separately, I wanted to comment on being conditioned and or forced on the athletics and or instruments or any other “want my kid to stay with something they’re good at.”
Specifically to your para on figure skating and your height, body type. I was a dancer from the time I was 2.5, considered “very talented” in the NYC competitive world. Graceful “like a swan” blah blah. I tried out several years in a row for the nutcracker, (for all outside the tri states, this is something almost all the ballet schools did/do- bring their “best” girls to try out.”) I never made a dent past second/early rounds. I am a decent dancer, but a better gymnast. I am a shrimp (5′ 1.5″) and built like an athlete, NOT a swan, Every dance teacher, aid, etc. tried to make me stay when I quit for gymnastics. They said I was crazy to “give up my chance” I knew at the ripe young age I was never going to grow to be a prima ballerina, wish as I might.bthey pushed and I quit. And, sorry Ms. Carmen, I was right to quit!
I made it to states and regionals in 10th grade as a gymnast, before I became a high school, drop out in11th grade. I still remember my gymnastics coach telling me to “stop being so G Damn graceful on the beam!” and to “forget the sissy music” for my floor routine (it was ice castles).
I can still do a back hand spring and arch on a line. I bet you are amazing on skates still if you throw them on at a rink or pond.
Here is the REAL thing Penelope- you want to help your kids identify and I get that urge, yes I do! But, a little life experience is priceless in helping to decide, so why push?
As a feminist, I did not know about the oppression of women until I went to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. I did not know I would want to angel flight voluterily until I was a pilot. I did not know I needed to get clean water to Indian villages until I met my global human rights friends. I did not know I would want to learn French until I most briefly, met Julia Child…and continue ti work at it, lousybasbi may be. So for these reasons and a thousand more, I understand the resistance to make children generalists in school aged years. My point is the world will give us all the generalist, well rounded perspective we could eve need. Thatbis what the WORLD does. We as parents, and those as institutional edu sellers, need to see that children do not need this as children. LIFE. LIFE. LIFE. Gives it to us all.
When and only when we are ready.
It’s nice to see my fellow generalists and synthesizers so well represented in the comments. I have a hunch we’re over-represented in the population of home educators.
CJ, my initial reaction to this post was like yours. But I wasn’t entirely sure why, so I thought about it, found the words and wrote, then shared what I ended up realizing. Having read Penelope’s blogs for quite a while myself, I have come to appreciate her ability to prompt that very process.
I don’t read her blogs because she’s always right. I read her blogs because she has a knack for finding and pressing the right buttons to get people to think about why they agree or disagree; a knack for somehow motivating a wide variety of people to bring their point of view to bear in the comments. She has such an offbeat approach and blunt up-front honesty–right or wrong, she’ll tell you what she thinks. And that gets conversations started.
Getting busy and talented people–as widely varied as you and Redrock–to take time to contribute to something that always ends up so much larger than just the post that kicked it all off…seems like an art-form to me. And I love watching her practice it, and seeing what comes from that.
I’m glad you took the time to tell your story and share your point of view, along with so many others that together helped me understand myself a bit better, and made me feel better about the way I am.
I have wanted to tell you for some time now that I sincerely hope you are a writer and that we will see something of yours published because you have one of the loveliest writing styles. My friends and I have emailed about this.
I think you are onto something too, and believe it is our widely and wildly varied interests that land us on brazen career advisors blog on homeschooling chatting with one another and at the same time just as likely to meet on 100 other topics. And so many bloggers say how “this is the only blog I read” on so many sites, and I am all over the map.
You know the beauty in mystery quote by Einstein I put on the other day? I think this about the blog world and listening to others POVs, like red rocks, and PTs, is awesome. I love all the under current of thought it gives me in a day, while I am doing my other things. I come back to PT again and again because she is talented at getting the conversation started. And, I mirror your gratitude: you all help me understand myself better and my world.
Ps. You know how you know you are a generalist? Your friends stop calling you by name and give you a bumper sticker that reads: encyclopedia. ;-)~
I’m so glad you wrote this post because it extends on some of the comments from your last one, which I’ve been thinking a lot about.
I totally agree that one of the most powerful benefits of homeschooling is the freedom to specialise. But I think we need to add “at the right time”, because it may take some kids a while before they stumble upon their Thing. Dabbling allows them to try out stuff, to discover a path that’s right for them. When they do, homeschooling lets you run with it.
My son has wanted to be a software engineer ever since he first learned to click a mouse – he was hacking games to change the parts he didn’t like when he was four, so clearly that’s his Thing. As he moved into high school it became obvious that he would have to spend five years struggling to learn things that he’s never going to need, enjoy or be good at. It seemed like such a waste of time. With homeschool he can follow the path he always should have been on (he can already program better than a lot of coders I’ve met).
But my other son has yet to discover his Thing (I should’ve picked a different word because that sounds so wrong…) So we explore the world and dip in and out of topics, without the pressure that he should have found it by now. At school he felt like a failure because his talents didn’t align with what someone else said he should be talented at. With homeschool he’s enjoying trying to find his talent, knowing that when he does he’ll be able to do it as much as he wants. It’s empowering him to make his own success.
So in this focus on specialisation we need to be careful not to inadvertently pressure kids to know what their Thing is. We ask kids all the time “what do you want to be when you grow up?” when maybe the question should be more like “What do you enjoy doing?” or “What do you want to spend your time on?”
Minor point: Most libraries have subscriptions to academic journals through partnerships with universities. Both cities in the US that I’ve lived in have had this type of arrangement. Ask at your public library.
Good tip about seeking library access for information. To that I’d like to add, there is an academic movement (led in part by a few librarians) for “Open Access Publishing”, an idea whose time is long overdue. In the same spirit, MIT and Harvard are busying publishing ALL their course work online for free!
Sometimes academia gets it right! Yay!
Another great article, Penelope. Thanks.
And isn’t it true that you have to learn to cut your losses? after sinking so much time into skating, it may be hard but important to give up (unless you enjoyed doing it — it’s certainly great exercise).
This is why I was confused about keeping up your oldest son’s violin lessons. You can’t keep doing something just because you’ve already sunk a bunch of time into it. I know a lot of adults who make that mistakes, especially lawyers!
I believe in a well-rounded education until about 10th grade. I think all kids should read The Lottery, multiply fractions, point out Pakistan on a map, change a tire, code a bit, dissect a frog, study the big wars, learn the foundations of the world religions, and make a decent eggplant parm. And then 1000 other things. Once there is a base, go forth and specialize. I’m all about a modern liberal arts education.
(Also, I’m all bilingualism, but that’s another subject)
And the military. So many lifers say, “well I have already given this 7 years so now I MUST stay in 20 to get retirement.” even if they are in a crippling state of misery with their life and job.
I agree with you, Julianna. To sacrifice one subject for another in the formative years is reckless – that whole bit about “history will repeat itself” applies to multiple subjects – it is essential to ethics and empathy to walk in another’s shoes, for a moment at least. Give children both specifics and the whole. Truth be told, we do really use algebra in daily life. After 10th grade should be a great time to focus more on a specialty but not at the exclusion of ALL else. Narrow mindedness is core to intolerance and that’s not a good life for anyone.
Interesting! My children are grown so I do not read your homeschool blog for them, I read it to learn how to homeschool myself. I have learned a lot. Thank you.
This is a good post! Yes, if children are pushed to be well rounded they could end up trying to do everything, only to end up spinning their wheels for decades …… like me.
This is why I didn’t understand your problem with “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” The book is all about how she wants to teach her kids perseverance, to work hard at something and become really good at it. She also believes that kids need their parents to push them to do this– at an age where kids are too little to decide on preferences, and might give up if left to themselves. So she just picks something for them to do (piano, violin) and works really hard with them. She wants to push them through the times when they want to give up, so that they will feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from hard work and subsequent success.
She sees “Western families” as dabblers– because they think childhood is all about fun and exploring, the kids don’t learn how to focus and feel fulfilled. I would not do things exactly the way she did, but I think she has a really good point. Not unlike the point you make here. So it really leaves me wondering what, exactly, your problem was with her. I have wanted to ask you this for a while, and this post seems to really highlight the similarities between your view and hers.
I think there is good and bad generalizing. Good generalizing is having a main specialty, but having one or two other areas of knowledge or skill to either subtly improve your niche or improve your life. Bad generalizing is being mediocre at or learning and promptly forgetting a bunch of things. The latter describes pretty much all of public school. The former is what most of us have to do to function in modern society. Although I think most people end up doing too much of the bad generalizing.
I love you but this article bugs me. You value expertise but I feel at the expense of experience. Even though I will never be a top figure skater I will always love that I learned and dabbled a bit. What’s more, having the sweet memory of a lovely little stranger-girl who pulled my 7-year old self away from the sidelines to give me a generous two hour lesson on skating – this is a memory that shapes my life experience, values, ideas and mindset to this very day. I have never since seen this kind girl who skated beautifully but I will always be thankful for her kindness and generosity towards me
I love you but this article bugs me. You value expertise but I feel at the expense of experience. Even though I will never be a top figure skater I will always love that I learned and dabbled a bit. What’s more, having the sweet memory of a lovely little stranger-girl who pulled my 7-year old self away from the sidelines to give me a generous two hour lesson on skating – this is a memory that shapes my life experience, values, ideas and mindset to this very day. I have never since seen this kind girl who skated beautifully but I will always be thankful for her kindness and generosity towards me. And even though it doesn’t necessarily set me off on a stellar career path, it is an experience that I feel has a value that cannot be quantified.
Another extremely thought provoking post…
On a related note, check out Robin Hanson’s argument against sophistication
I’d recommend his blog in general, actually. It is upsetting.
Interesting blog. Thanks for sharing the link, Greg.
This is a great article and I agree with it 100%. Last night we celebrated my oldest daughter’s graduation from high school. I have homeschooled her the entire way through and we have taught her to specialize in one thing and she is awesome. She began playing violin at 3 years old – after of year of her begging to play. And she has played ever since. She did not do other sports or instruments. I wanted her to get to the point where she could say, “I am a violinist”.
continuing from above – She has taught violin now for 4 years and is an awesome teacher. She may not become a professional violinist or teach for the rest of her life but through this experience she knows what she can do and who she is. I took so many different lessons and dabbled in so many things. But my daughter is an expert in something at 17. We have done that with our younger girls as well-finding what they are great at and helping them to develop those skills.
“I will have to tell you what they say, because even though the US government funds universities and makes the Ivory Tower possible, academics continue to publish in journals that are not free to the taxpayer. It’s absurd. I am not alone in thinking this is a colossal rip off.”
I just sent emails to my representatives in Washington, D.C.
If anybody else is interested in doing the same, the U.S. Senate directory is at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm?OrderBy=state&Sort=ASC and the U.S. House directory is at http://www.house.gov/representatives/#state_sd .
Please note that I am not defending the status quo, but there are reasons why it is currently done the way it is done. Could it be improved – certainly – do we have a good alternative model? Not sure…
A scientist career hinges on publishing in high impact journals – those are Nature, Physical Review, Cell and so on. Those are published by commercial publishers or professional societies, who take care of all the communication, the editing, the printing (electronic mostly by now), and arrange for the whole peer reviewing process to go smoothly. Someone has to pay for this, at the moment these are the libraries of the institutions. And publishing is not cheap due to the on average relatively small number of subscribers.
Now, lets say I decide that I will not participate in this system – and publish only in open access journals. This means that I publish in journals effectively nobody has ever heard about because many journals are currently starting of as an internet business. Peer review, the flawed but still most effective way of quality control, is much less stringent in those journals, and consequently their reputation is debatable. Which also means that I can kiss my career good-bye because nobody will hire me since I was unable to test my quality of research in a competitive environment which currently is the review process of the most reputed journals.
It boils down to the question who pays for publishing – in the open access journals it will solely be advertising. And this will for better or for worse change the journal quality, and reputation. If we can retain an effective method for peer review, and the high quality competitive environment for publishing I honestly don’t care how it is achieved. At the moment University libraries pay for the service of publishing.
I agree with everything you say here, redrock.
I sent the link to The Economist article in my email to my representatives. Hopefully, they read – “In 2011 Elsevier, the biggest academic-journal publisher, made a profit of £768m ($1.2 billion) on revenues of £2.1 billion. Such margins (37%, up from 36% in 2010) are possible because the journals’ content is largely provided free by researchers, and the academics who peer-review their papers are usually unpaid volunteers. The journals are then sold to the very universities that provide the free content and labour. For publicly funded research, the result is that the academics and taxpayers who were responsible for its creation have to pay to read it.” Publishing costs have to be covered but it’s the “out-of sight” profit margin that I really don’t like or agree with. I really don’t know what they’ll do with the info. I’ve provided but I want to make them aware.
Elsevier is indeed the poster child about how not to do it.
.. and there is always ArXiv.
A follow-up to my email from my U.S. Senator, Charles E. Schumer –
“Thank you for writing to express your concerns over HR 3699, the Research Works Act. I share your concerns over access to scientific and scholarly articles.
As you know, the Research Works Act would prohibit a federal agency from using private sector research work without the publishers consent to creating or continuing a policy, program or other activity. Even federally funded research that is published in the private sector would be affected.
This bill has not yet been introduced in the Senate, but I will continue to monitor its progress in the House.
Again thank you for contacting me on this important issue. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future if I can ever be of assistance to you on this, or any other matter.”
First of all, a thank you to Senator Schumer and his staff for a relatively quick reply and making me aware of HR 3699. So I did a search for HR 3699 and found this well written article – http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/evo-eco-lab/2012/01/16/mistruths-insults-from-the-copyright-lobby-over-hr-3699/ . Also the first link in this post (written by the same author about 1 1/2 weeks earlier) is a good read. I’m still waiting to hear from my HR rep. I think I read somewhere that they’re more busy this time of year. I might have to resort to the telephone and ask them where my email is in the queue. I think this issue of access to scientific papers is a can of worms. I hope improvements are made.
My first career was as a professional musician and teacher. As a child, playing the cello was my parents exercise in “being well rounded”. I enjoyed it and started performing at a level more than dabbling but then discovered as a musician you have to do far more than be well rounded – you must specialize to eat. I wish now that lesson would have resonated more strongly with me.
I am a really good cellist, but not a great cellist. Had I specialized earlier, maybe I could have been great. Instead I went to graduate school and specialized as an adult in another career field. For me, there was a lot of waste in being “well rounded”.
No offense intended, but this is distressing to me. Eventually, people need to specialize, but taking this idea too far, too soon, could be viewed as promoting ignorance. It is sad to think that you couldn’t have more than a basic conversation with people that aren’t in your specialty. That’s like age & sex segregation via schools. You also have to be careful about the research on which you base your premise. People, including experts, quote at me with their “research”, trying to persuade me that my child is at a disadvantage in many ares b/c we don’t maintain the status quo in school.
I have realized what’s really eating me about this approach. It denies service. Maybe I am protective of the service industry because much of my life has been spent this way, so I will admit bias at the start. However, regardless of my personal experiences, the service industry is ginormous and we cannot overestimate its importance.
There are nannies in NYC, LA and FL that I know about personally that make between 100k-250k. See recent NYTimes article too. There are personal chefs, that also act as personal assistants, that make six figures. There are concierges,that earn 6 figures with tips included. Party planners, wowzers, they are often making more than their clients. (not that money is the only litmus) What about first class flight attendants? Their wages are low, but they get all the travel they could desire. How about personal assistants to the wealthy? Cruise ship employees? Military and government linguists? Call center managers? Not all lucrative, but all represent huge employment pockets. No. They are not all entrepreneurs. Some are. They are the middle America/middle global workforce. Anyhow, just using the nannies for example, they have to know well, everything! Multi lingual, child development, scheduling, sports, how to handle themselves at a billionaire cocktail function, etc. and like the nytimes article said, specialties….like the one that wanted a zamboni operator along with cooking and massage skills. Only well rounded people can do really well in service industry. And they must be people pleasers, taboot. That’s generalist all over the place.
This post is excellent and I couldn’t agree with you more. It reinforces to me the need to start mentoring my kids in their giftings. Thank you for sharing!
An article in HBR on specialists vs. generalists – http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/06/all_hail_the_generalist.html .
It currently has 161 comments. It’s definitely a controversial topic.
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Very interesting. This is one of the many reasons I unschool my four kids.
WOOOOW!!! A very unintelligent article to say the least. Since when is everything in life about money? You don’t see any value in teaching your kids to try things they aren’t good at? Because it doesn’t boost their ego!? That’s dumb as shit!! So what if they aren’t good at math. Just don’t learn to add? Bad at English – no problem, just don’t ever read or write anything, you’ll never need that! Economics doesn’t float your boat, no problem, just never have money!! Learning outdoor survival could never come in handy no matter what, huh? It’s a spectacular plan to teach them if they ever face adversity, just run from it. Teach them they’ll never be good at anything they don’t like and they shouldn’t bother because skateboarding is the only thing you’ll ever need to know. That is FUCKING STUPID!!! You are what’s wrong with people these days, and the reason we have more complete idiots running around than ever before. Encouraging their passions is one thing. DIScouraging learning new things, growing, and being a complete person that takes life for what it’s worth by experiencing as much as possible, is just HORRIBLE.
Amen to you Jack. I cannot believe any of the baloney on this website is to be taken seriously. Idiots raising idiots, fo sho.
A friend pointed me toward your blog. Although I only know about half a dozen friends/family that homeschool, you are the first that 1) doesn’t appear to be religiously driven and 2) have a background in education. I’m not going to homeschool my own children; just had a question about public ed outside of the U.S.
I was wondering if you could speak to public education in Europe. I was a French major, and if I’m not mistaken, don’t students have to pick a specialty prior to entering high school?
Thanks for any input. I look forward to reading more!
Just another baby step towards A Brave New World (Aldous Huxley). There’s something beautiful about being lost and confused in a dysfunctional world such as this… Then again that kind of thinking’s how you end up with your feet dangling and turning slowly “like two unhurried compass needles”…
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Keep up the good writing.
This post certainly gave me pause to think–and procrastinate a little more ;)
One of the things that struck me about it was your bitterness at your parents for not discouraging you to quit figure skating. The complaints I hear more often from adults is that their parents didn’t make them practice enough or let them quit before they could get really great at something. It seems you really can’t win.
Second, I have mixed feelings about specializing early on. Many of the kids and parents approach these special interests like they’re a career and I don’t believe children need to have a career. They’re just getting their feet wet, scoping out the possibilities. Focusing on a career so early shuts the door to so many others.
Thank you for a very thought-provoking piece.
This is a great article and certainly thought-provoking. However, to be fair, the argument isn’t really against raising well-rounded kids, but rather against raising dabblers – kids who are unengaged, unenthused, and generally uninterested in themselves or the life around them.
With that, I absolutely agree.
And yes, our current traditional schooling system does little to promote engagement, enthusiasm and interest. However, I think that laying the blame on “well-roundedness” is a bit misleading.
Well-roundedness is not about dabbling, it’s about being more than one thing. It’s about developing a variety of skill sets that enable you to engage with the world in more complex, and ultimately more meaningful ways.
Well-roundedness is what allows us to be in “flow” because the experience of flow comes from being fully connnected with what we are doing. This connectedness requires the development of our minds and bodies in increasingly complex ways (which is precisely what we are doing when we are “rounding” ourselves out.)
That said, at some point (and this is where I absolutely agree with you) we can spread ourselves thin and loose our focus, thus breaking our flow. That is when we need to hone in on those areas that have become most meaningful to us, the ones that make us feel most alive… and we “specialize.”
I guess my issue with this article is that it vilifies “well-roundedness” when in fact, there is a time and place for it. Indeed, there is great value in it. But, like everything else (including specialization) it has its limits and we need to know when to move on.
Ultimately, our ability to flourish (and continue flourishing) depends on how well we can broaden our horizons and explore the world (and ourselves) while also focusing our energies and limited resources on those things that will make us better at being ourselves.
– Karla (www.totthoughts.com)
When I read…you make less money…if you’re not specialized, I automatically thought of Jose Ortega y Gasset and his book the Revolt of the Masses. He has a chapter called ‘The Barbarism of Specialization’. I’ll quote breifly:…man was once divided simply into learned and ignorant. A specialist can’t be brought under either of these two catergories. He is learned and formally ignorant of that doen’t enter into his/her speciality. We shall have to say, he is a learned ignoramus…
You have own speciality as a ‘Careerist’ and you have good advice within that field but it seems you have broardened it into life itself. I have to admit that I was smitten by your thoughts on education and homeschooling but I see that they are infected by your speciality and lacking a philosophy outside of that. Should I be surprised? That’s not your speciality!
Very interesting post and one I generally agree with. There are fine points I feel are worthy of adding to.
It’s pretty easy early on to see where your kid’s interests and talents lie, and yes, those should be a focus as we nurture and encourage them. I believe though, as parents and educators, we also need to bring in some diversity.
Children need to know what’s out there just so they have that awareness. They need be understanding of people outside their own skill set. And they need to fail once in a while – or do less awesomely – just so they have that experience. Also, children’s interests change. I know mine did and so did my four children’s.
I like the woman above who posted how she uses her children’s interests to guide their homeschooling lessons. She still is teaching them a variety of subjects, but she’s coming at each of them from the angle of her child’s interests.
Which leads me to thoughts of homeschooling vs. traditional schools. I fully support homeschooling. But really folks, you need to quit bashing public schools. You have to understand that not everyone is equipped to teach their own children, whether financially or with proper skills. For those families, the public school is a necessary thing and one we should fully support – this is where the majority of our children are educated and that majority is our future. Stop acting like you’re so above everyone, just because you have the opportunity to teach your children. If you wonder why people cringe at homeschoolers, it’s that attitude of piousness that does it.
You say traditional schools don’t offer enough individualized teaching, that they don’t nurture a child’s specific skillset. But really, just how could a teacher provide a customized education to a room full of 20+ children? Offering a well-rounded education provides the greatest learning to the greatest number of students. From that point, it’s the parents job to engage their children in their education and further it in the direction of their child’s talents. If our public school system is failing, it’s time parents start assuming some of the responsibility for that failure.
Gone are the days when human capital build on very specialize trade or skills or knowhow; gone are the days where people devote their entire life to one trade. Today jobs become obsolete as fast as new ones are created. Today it is important for learner to acquire core skills to adapt, to unlearn and to relearn; it would serve the learners better to have skills that are transferable. Learners need to have broad knowledge; a rounded education serves that well.
1, At primary, the most important skills that students must learn is fundamental buiding block knowledge to that they may acquire deeper knowledge at secondary. Learners should have broad knowledge and read widely.
2. At secondary students need to learn 21st century skills which would make them versatile leaner who are self directed, good at communication, good research skills, be able to think creatively and divergently. All of these skills runs counter to learning convergent thinking that focus on a single skill set. If the learner already has a passion for certain profession he could start to develop skills related to it in parallel to learning core 21st century skills; of course one can have differentiated learning, just not be at the expense of roundedness.
3. Post secondary, perhaps the person can dealt deeply into a passion or professional skills.
In a fast changing environment that would require a work force that is versatile – in unlearning and relearning; to focus on a single skill sets at elementary and secondary level is not very wise.
Great article. When I look back at my life, I can’t help but wonder how different things would have been if my parents and the community of teachers I had were more invested in my special skills – but most teaching professionals cannot do that simply because it’s too time consuming and really – why should they? it’s not their responsibility to make sure your child is excelling. I mean, most teachers don’t take the time to offer that kind of guidance to their own kids, so why would they for someone else’s? You rock for accepting that responsibility!
I’m not sure if this is nosy – but I’m kind of interested in the father of your kids, and if you’ve ever reflected on his role in helping your sons specialize because I’m sure what their biological father specializes in will be of interest to them.. I mean, do you ever think it’s just easier for them to follow in his footsteps? You probably won’t answer this but maybe it’ll give you something to think about – if you havne’t already.
Really? I would not have survived life in only one specialized field.
How will your children fair, if life throws them a loop?
I am sure you think this is best, but if I did not have the life skills to get through life’s trials, then I could not have adapted.
I have passed that well profoundness on…
Years ago I read a book by Arthur Miller called, “Why You Can’t be Anything You Want to Be.” In this book he talked about the futility of enhancing one’s weaknesses to the detriment of strengthening ones strengths. It’s a great book. Winston Churchill thought he was an academic failure because he didn’t “get” math. It wasn’t until after he finished school and his mom supplied him with packages of books that he realized he not only loved learning, he loved sharing his opinion with others. Your blog is spot on except sometimes, when our children are young, we dabble in order to discover their strengths and, oftentimes, our dabble is centered around our unmet childhood dreams. :)
I think I have a very different definition of well-rounded than you seem to. I don’t believe that being well rounded means being reasonably good at numerous things. I believe it means being reasonably knowledgeable about numerous things. For instance, my oldest son (8) shows a marked interest in all things mechanical. We nurture this at home by purchasing toys and kits and such that develop this particular skill. We also strongly push reading. He will never be a great reader, and quite frankly can’t stand doing it at the moment, but he knows who Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Austin are. And he will continue to learn about literary greats and their various writing styles because I won’t allow him to pigeon-hole himself into one thing remaining ignorant of everything else. Will he ever write a novel? Heck no, he will likely struggle with writing essays for school. He will, however, KNOW. He will know that the world is bigger than him. He will know that it is vast and full of wonderful things. He will know how to converse on any number of these things, He has decided that he will be an engineer when he grows up. We encourage and support and push him towards that goal. It is NOT all he will be.