All of us, through life, ponder about the balance between learning a little about a lot versus focusing our attention on learning more and more about a particular area.
Father Adolfo Nicholás, in a 2010 address, described the fear he has that modern life is overloaded with stimuli demanding our immediate attention. This overload breeds short attention spans. A short attention span produces a pervasive superficiality. It provides a breeding ground for fanaticism and ideologues. To counter this, he argued for “depth,” concentrated thinking and time for reflection as a way to release “creative imagination” to reassemble facts and observations into new understandings.
IBM has promoted the idea that their enterprise values “T-shape” people. By that it appears they mean experts in a subfield of knowledge who also are conversant in the basic concepts of many other fields. That basic knowledge is needed to work effectively in interdisciplinary teams. The base of the “T” is meant to graphically describe the extent of deep knowledge in the subfield, and the top of the “T” describes the many other fields in which basic knowledge is held.
In a completely different domain, some scholars speculate that what we interpret as wisdom is actually a synthesis of deep knowledge in an area and broad experience in many subfields. We sometimes encounter this in a mentor, who sees our situation from a vantage point different than ours, powered by their own years of experience. They diagnose a way forward for us, the mentee, that we could not see ourselves. We see it in an elder, who amazes us by putting together two seemingly disparate observations into a novel perspective. They have identified connections among facts and concepts to produce new insights.
This ability to synthesize information seems different from the notion of “depth” or the notion of “breadth” of knowledge. It is compatible with a metaphor used to describe visionaries – “height,” the ability to see solutions at a level that is superior to others. Visionaries “see above the crowd” because of their ability to synthesize lots of facts and combine them in new ways. The metaphor of height is popular because it communicates enhanced vision.
Thus, for real impact, the ability to synthesize diverse knowledge must accompany deep command of one field and broad competency in many. This synthesis provides the height of vision we so admire, leading to the creation of novel solutions based on the totality of knowledge.
How do universities achieve these goals? When we’re at our best, we present students with experiences that draw on deep and broad knowledge, but apply it to real world problems solvable only with new combinations of that knowledge. This is often a difficult task for students accustomed to highly structured teaching/learning protocols. It also challenges instructors to manage great uncertainties as students try to navigate problems that may not have a solution or may have multiple solutions. The move to experience-based learning often creates such experiences. Interdisciplinary problem-based studies also seem to offer fertile ground for rehearsing the synthesis step.
So, in essence, this is the argument for producing graduates who exhibit depth, breadth, and height. Instead of “T” people we need people that might be called “+” people.