Utah State University

Academic Silos – Jenessa Blotter

They wake up. They train. They go to sleep.  This is the life of an Olympian.  Do you want to be the best in the world at what you do?  Or, do you prefer the comfort of believing that you are well rounded?  This false pretense is what we promote in the US education system. Academic silos (an educational strategy where academic diversity is limited) are generally frowned upon, but truthfully, where they are used they provide academic “Olympians.”  There are two main reasons you should accept this argument: primarily, it’s irrational to ignore the costs of trying to appear academically well rounded, in addition academic silos produce successful people.

Time is really all we have.  There is only so much time in a day.  To develop a skill, or obtain information, is often expensive and time consuming.  Simply being informed to the point where a good political decision can be made is irrational.  Imagine trying to keep up on every political issue.  Sure, you could read every press release, spend hours online, and do extensive research to become educated on politics, but is that really a rational thing for every American to do all day? Taken even moderately seriously, this would be absurd. Similarly, it is irrational to attempt to prove you are well rounded academically when that deception takes up valuable time.  No lone person can master math, science, English, business, art, history, music, and social science at a functional level.  What is the point of getting beyond a functional level in statistics or learning how to paint if you are never going to use these skills?  A biologist’s time is better spent studying the life cycle of an ascomycete, not studying musical theory.

But won’t this focus result in narrow minded students? This is by far the most common argument made against academic silos.  I don’t really understand how this is even a problem.  Eventually students are going to end up in one career.  At this point, they won’t need much information outside of their field.  Imagine you have a heart condition and need open heart surgery.  Would you rather have a doctor that really knows how to perform heart surgery, having been performing them for years?  Or one who is decent, having done one or two, but also played the tuba in college? Call me crazy, but I would prefer the less rounded doctor. How serious are students about the subjects they are forced to take outside of their major anyhow?  Students in core classes that don’t apply to them aren’t even trying to learn.  They are on their phones, or doodling in their notebooks.  In classes of 300 people who do not care about the subject, it would be surprising if even 10 people got something out of it.

Metal sharpens metal. Mental silos create successful people. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat in my core classes listening to professors answering questions that would have been clear if students had read the first paragraph of the textbook chapter.  What if Beethoven rather than being given time to play the piano was forced to sit through remedial lectures in German and math?  We wouldn’t have his beautiful classical music and he wouldn’t have carved his name into history.  Thomas Edison, who famously did poorly in school, would be discouraged from spending all of his time inventing things, and we would have literally remained in the dark for much longer.

Can we revive the concept of academic silos?  I think there is much to be gained by focusing on building academic “Olympians.”  Specifically, a country full of excellent scientists, businessmen, musicians, doctors, teachers, you name it.  If the colleges that adopt these changes exceed the performance in the rest of the country, then they become an example for reform.  Taking classes that in no way pertain to your career can be fun, but one class is not enough to be “well rounded” on a subject.  Just like voters are ignorant because it is irrational to be politically informed, it is irrational to be educationally well rounded.  It’s not feasible, let alone rational.  So, would you rather jump into an academic silo like history’s heroes and become successful at what you want to do, or pretend to be well rounded, and consequently be mediocre at your actual career?

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