In Defense of Well-Roundedness

defense of well-roundedness
In a blog post published at her website, “The Argument Against Raising Well-Rounded Kids,” homeschool writer Penelope Trunk argues, well, against raising well-rounded kids. I myself am in favor of raising well-rounded kids. In fact, not only am I in favor of raising well-rounded kids, I have actually done it. And one of the things I have noticed about the kids I have perpetrated well-roundedness on is that they never seem to have had any trouble specializing in anything, something Trunk seems to believe well-rounded kids cannot do.

This is the first and primary problem with Trunk’s argument: It relies on a false dichotomy between what she calls “dabbling” and specialization: that you must either be a “dabbler”–someone who is not very good at a lot of things–or a “specialist”–someone who is an expert at only one or two specific things.

Here is Ms. Trunk’s vivid characterization of the well-rounded person, and why she thinks of this kind of person as a “dabbler”:

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.

The first thing to say about this characterization is that the dichotomy it sets up is that it is far from being exhaustive of the kind of people we find. Some wise man once quipped that there were only two kinds of people in this world: those who say that there are two kinds of people in this world and those who don’t say that. I find myself in the latter group. The world isn’t separated into one camp in which people are not very good at a lot of things and another camp in which everyone is only good at one or two things. There are, in addition, people who are not very good at just a few things, and still other people who are very good at a lot of things.

Ms. Trunk seems to assume that if you are broadly educated, you must be shallowly educated. But this simply is not the case conceptually or historically.

I find it interesting that, instead of some stereotypical daughter of the landed gentry, Ms. Trunk did not mention, say, the 19th century German scientists, who, in addition to having studied mathematics and science, were broadly and classically educated, which meant that they learned Latin and Greek and read the Great Books. Or even the great philosophers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, who in addition to having studied Latin and Greek and read the Great Books, had mastered mathematics and the sciences. Each was better at what he specialized in because he had mastered other disciplines as well.

Albert Einstein’s once said that, in science, “imagination is more important than knowledge,” which is just another way of saying that scientists should be well-rounded.

Being broadly educated simply does not imply that you cannot be accomplished at the many things you have studied. It is undoubtedly harder today to master all the specialties that have been spawned over the last two or three hundred years. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be the master of many important things. My oldest son, for example, can competently discuss philosophy, law, economics, theology, and computer science with experts in any one of those fields. And he can do it because he received a well-rounded education. His education was both broad and deep.

In the true sense, in other words, well-roundedness is not “dabbling.”

“Some people are great at doing things, some people are great at thinking things,” Trunk says. “Why bother forcing the doers to think?” The most obvious answer is, of course, so that they can do better. The second most obvious answer is so they don’t cause harm. People who know only how to do but not think are the people you have to watch out for. They are the people who can tell you the best way to do something but cannot tell you why or whether you should do it. The one thing this modern world has too much of is people who can do, but can’t think. This is why we have pollution, and war, and crime–because people know how to do things but can’t think well enough to know they shouldn’t do them.

Then there is the issue of the value of well-roundedness in the modern world, a value Ms. Trunk doubts. “[N]owhere in the world is well-roundedness still valuable,” she says bluntly. This, she states, can be concluded from “research.” Research can certainly tell us about certain things, but the one thing it cannot tell us is whether something is valuable. In fact, a study cannot determine the value of anything. Value is not a matter of quantitative data (the only thing a study can really measure). Research studies can only tell us what is; they cannot tell us what ought to be.

The only reason people think well-roundedness is a worthy goal, she argues is because “that’s what schools focus on teaching.” Which schools are those? It is an increasingly vexed question whether modern schools do anything well anymore. Some would question whether they even teach “dabbling” well. But, in any case, it is hard to see why anyone would think anything was valuable for a school to do merely because they, in fact, do it.

“But,” she says, “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.” Which brings us to another problem; namely the assumption that education is about getting a job or getting into college. If classical education involves anything at all, it is the repudiation of this belief. Education isn’t about getting a job, it is about becoming wise and virtuous (and, consequently, well-rounded).

Now the thing about being well-rounded (and wise and virtuous) is that it just so happens that being well-rounded makes it easier to get a job. If you doubt it, go talk to employers, even in tech businesses. The thing you will hear from them most is that what they are looking for is people who can think and problem solve (in addition to just being generally personable, polite, and responsible). And the thing about these qualifications is that they come from being well-rounded, wise, and virtuous. The one thing they don’t come from is specialization.

Which brings us to the fourth issue: Trunk argues that students should focus on what they are interested in and good at. There are several problems with the idea of students doing only what they want to do. The first is that, unless their education is well-rounded, they won’t have a competent conception of what is worth liking. You can’t know whether you would like Shakespeare unless you have read and understood Shakespeare. You can’t know whether Roman history is interesting to you or not if you haven’t been immersed in Roman history. You can’t know whether science is your thing unless you have some exposure it.

Knowing what you’re good at or whether something is interesting to you requires a bit of, shall we say, “dabbling.”

In addition, the whole idea that we should focus on playing to a student’s strengths is questionable. Pete Rose is accounted by many to have been one of the greatest baseball players of all time. When asked why this was, Rose answered, “because I practice the things I’m not good at.”

And this is where all this talk about specialization ultimately founders–because not only does specialization not accomplish the misconceived education goals of getting a job and getting high test scores, but it does nothing for the real goal of education, which is the development of a better human being (a human being whose ultimate satisfaction comes from much more than a job or the ability to take a test).

Finally, my last argument against Ms. Trunk’s thesis is Ms. Trunk herself. If you read her biography you find out quickly how successful she is. She played professional beach volleyball; went to graduate school to study English; founded four start up businesses: Math.com, eCitydeals, and two others; managed the website of a Fortune 100 company; wrote a bestselling career advice book; and runs a successful blog.

Sounds like a well-rounded person to me.

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