Unpacking the Liberal Arts Versus Specialization Conversation

There is a common sentiment among proponents of the liberal arts (I happen to be one of them) that there is a dangerous focus upon over-specialization today that puts people at risk. The argument usually sounds something like this. If you go to technical college and get a degree in a very specialized area or you go to a one-year computer programming boot camp instead of getting a B.S. in computer science, you might be better off in the short-term, but you also put yourself at risk. What happens when your area of specialized training becomes obsolete? I wrote about this recently, but I’d like to approach it from a slightly different angle in this article.

Valid Concern

First, there is a valid concern in this critique. I meet people who worked in very specialized factory jobs, for example, and when the industry changed, that job disappeared and the person got laid off. That happens around the world every day. Jobs come and go. Needed tasks appear and, over time, become less necessary due to advancements in technology, new business processes and plenty of other factors.


Yet, I need to distinguish between the scenarios that I described above and many of the other specializations that happen through technical college, college, non-credit certifications, and the like. Many specializations today are in areas where knowledge is changing quite often. Even if you get the formal training upfront, you usually can’t just lean on that original training forever. You continue to learn and develop to stay current. That is more important in some jobs than others, but this is even (maybe even especially) important in a realm like sales.


Sales people are often engaged in ongoing training about not just how to sell, but also staying informed about their product(s), the changing market, research about their customers, new software used on the job, changes in financial options for customers, and more. How long is a car salesman going to last if she doesn’t build strong communication skills, stay up on her portfolio of products and those of the competition, build new knowledge about how to navigate the databases, and constantly learn how to take advantage of new communication technologies? These are part of working in that arena. Yet, I’ve met plenty of people who started selling when the task required far fewer of these elements. Some people stayed up with the times and made the transition. Others did not.

Here is another important note with something like sales. There are plenty of transferable skills in a domain like this. Sales is not just sales. In fact, there is a wonderful “liberal arts” element to many great sales people. There is critical thinking. There are problem-solving skills, communication skills, knowledge of psychology and the human experience, quantitative skills, and some even leverage their cultural and other knowledge to connect with or build rapport with a customer. Yes, I’ve talked Ayn Rand and Heidegger with a car sales person before. Haven’t you?

This is a field that can be and has been disrupted by technology. Salespeople had to switch the nature of their work or retool altogether. Yet, if you have the sort of skills that I just described in the last paragraph (including a lifelong learning mindset), you have a good chance of landing on your feet. These are valued traits in the workplace and communities. As I’ve written before, liberal arts colleges don’t have a monopoly on the concept of the liberal arts.

Does This Apply in Other Fields?

Some might argue that sales is not the sort of specialized training that they are referencing. After all, plenty of liberal arts college graduates end up in sales. They do so without any specialized training in sales and can do quite well. That is different than other fields that require much more specialized training…like perhaps something in a medical field.

The Medical Field

Let’s explore that one a bit more, which brings me to the title of the article. Everyone working in a medical field today is specialized to some extent. In fact, from one perspective, isn’t medical school specialized training? Yes, you finish with some sort of specialization but the study of medicine itself is specialized and distinct from a myriad of other jobs in healthcare. Of course, I don’t hear too many people arguing that this specialized training will become obsolete soon (Although, that is a possibility. There are rich conversations about the impact of developments like telehealth, personalized medicine, health informatics and big data, advancements in self-care, robots in healthcare, along with leveraging more non-MD healthcare workers and using a smaller people of MDs.).

I understand that the specialized training associated with being an MD is different than the specialized training associated with becoming a plumber. Yet, I see plenty of similarities as well. Both entail constant technical changes and advancements. Both require staying current. Both require additional emotional and social skills beyond the specialized training to excel. Both benefit from strong character and convictions. In addition, granted that you paid attention to these other elements, both provide an ability to transfer into new and often very different fields.

Learn and Unlearn

Toffler wrote this and said it often. The educated of our age are those who have a keen ability to learn and unlearn. Specialization is a reality for many jobs. It is not about avoiding specialized training. We need that to get so many jobs done and done well. Yet, hardly anybody has a job protected from change in the modern world. That is why I am others talk and write about the importance of non-cognitive skills, learning how to learn, and the importance of developing the capacity for self-directed learning. These are just as important in specialized training as anywhere else.

Just Another Defense of the Liberal Arts?

Isn’t this just another defense of the liberal arts? As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I see great value in the liberal arts. It is just that many today seem to be setting up a strawman when they contrast specialized training with the values of a liberal arts education. They are not mutually exclusive. There is not one sacred pathway to developing these values and the associated mindsets, knowledge, and skills. Technical schools might not be liberal arts schools in the modern sense, but it doesn’t mean that that can’t nurture critical thinking, problem solving, learning how to learn, any many other traits that some associate with the liberal arts, including elements like an appreciation for culture and the arts (which was a point in my last article on this subject).

What About for Your Own Kids?

One critique of my past writing about these ideas, especially the concept of multiple pathways (some of which might not include college) is that this is the sort of thing elitists say is good for other people’s children but not their own. They talk about the merit of technical training and how a traditional liberal arts college experience isn’t essential, but then they send their kids to the best liberal arts schools in the nation. Instead, such critics often argue that our goal should be to send as many people as possible to college.

Yet, isn’t that forcing a preferred pathway on everyone else? Doesn’t that perpetuate the monopoly on access to certain types of jobs that people without college degrees could do exceedingly well? I argue that the learning is and should be seen as more important than the pathway. In fact, when we look at the need for learning across the lifespan, the person who gets this is at a huge advantage.

Is There a Dark Side to Setting Goals?

Is there a dark side to setting goals?

I like goals. In fact, when I turned forty a number of years ago, I set 1600 goals that I wanted to accomplish by the end of my 40s. I have goals about fitness, reading, writing, different types of foods that I wanted to eat, travel, personal finance, education projects and so much work. At work, I challenge each individual and team to have quarterly goals. At the end of each year, people at work set goals for the next year and review their progress of goals from the previous year. Goals are a significant part of my life and work.

They are also a large part of education today. While we have nuanced definitions of words like objectives, outcomes, standards, competencies and proficiencies…there is a goal-oriented nature to all of them. Ultimately, we are setting goals for people to achieve. There are goals for educators. There are goals for students. There are goals for individual schools.

Yet, the concept of goal setting is actually a type of technology, and as frequent readers of my blog come to think, every technology has affordances and limitations. Even the most positive and promising tools, methods, strategies, and technologies have a dark side.

Goals are no different. While I have every intention to continue using goals in my life, I would like to point out three important limitations or downsides to goals. As such, I am a champion for goal-setting but I also believe int the value of creating goal-free zones in my life and in learning organizations. Consider the following limitations and the implications for how we design learning communities.

Specific goals can inhibit creativity and innovation.

When you are focused on achieving a goal, you are just that…focused. Focus is a powerful tool. It keeps us from getting distracted. It helps us make progress is a discrete or specific area. It helps us prioritize, setting aside that which does not relate directly to the goal. This is powerful and helpful at times, but it can also inhibit creativity and innovation at other times. Sometimes we benefit from meandering, allowing our curiosity to draw us near and far, surfing from one idea to the next, and mixing diverse experiences and ideas. This less focused thinking, ideation, brainstorming, meandering, and experimenting can surface new ideas and possibilities. It can help us see things that the more goal-focused person might miss.

Have you ever been so caught up in an idea that you tuned out everyone and everything around you? Maybe you were even driving at the time. Afterward, you don’t even remember much of what you saw or did during the drive. It might have been very productive thinking. At the same time, you might have also missed out on an amazing scenery or something else noteworthy. This is true when it comes to the benefits and limitations of goal-less learning too.

“Goal setting motivates unethical behavior.”

There is research about this. While setting goals doesn’t make you unethical, there is an interesting element to this. Goals motivate and drive us to want to achieve something. When things get in our way, we can be tempted to cut corners or disregard the rules on our mission to reach a goal. This happens when students are driven to get an “A” on a test more than they are driven to learn. It happens when teachers are driven to get the highest possible student test scores. It happens in many other areas as well. Goal setting doesn’t always bring out the best in us. This is why our core values and convictions must play an even more central role than goals in our lives and learning organizations. Who we are and how we get there is, I contend, as or more important than the goals that we achieve.

Missing the Big Picture

Similar to the first limitation, we are often guided to set specific goals. We are also advised to set smaller goals that lead to larger ones. This can be helpful. However, if we are not careful, it can also lead to a view where we see the trees but miss the forest. We get our little piece of the puzzle but miss how our piece fits into something larger. That might be motivating and rewarding, but the big picture gives us context, meaning, purpose, and a sense of mission. These are important in education, so we want to find ways to not let goal setting focus our efforts exclusively on the narrow and specific to the point that people might miss the larger and meaning-rich picture of the what and why.

I’m sure that there are plenty of other limitations with goals too, but these three are a good starting point. Goals are good and helpful in education, but like so many things, they have their limitations. With this in mind, how might we design learning communities that leverage the benefits of goals while not falling prey to these less favorable possibilities?

Self-Doubt, Second Guessing & Educational Innovation

Self-doubt is simply a momentary or persistent decrease in confidence with regard to a person’s ability, ideas, motives, or any number of things. It is generally considered to be a barrier to success, something that we must set aside or overcome if we are going to achieve greatness or pursue something significant. If all you do is doubt and question yourself, that can prevent you from acting, from taking a calculated risk, from pursuing something new, or from stretching yourself to achieve something that you previously thought impossible for you. As Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure, ““Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”

At the same time, I’d like to suggest that self-doubt, when used in a reasonable but not lethal dose, is a powerful elixir. It helps us see and consider what we might not otherwise.

Almost everyone experiences moments of self-doubt. This certainly applies to educational innovators and leaders as well. As such, you can find thousands of online articles about how to cope with or navigate self-doubt in your life and work. I’m sure that there is fine advice that you will find us such articles. At the same time, I’ve come to believe that self-doubt is an important alert system in my life. It doesn’t just happen for no reason, and self-doubt, at least in my life, is a sign of something else that is even more important. Consider the following lessons that I learn from self-doubt in my work and leadership.

Reality Check

Sometimes I experience self-doubt when I get negative feedback, and that is an important indicator of my mindset at the time. When you get negative feedback, especially from several people on a related issue, that is a treasure of important information for improving. Yet, many of us don’t like it at first. It takes us a little time to let it sink in, to see it as the gift that it is. We like to think that we have already arrived, that our level of excellence is such that negative feedback is no longer necessary. We are just that good. Yet, negative feedback is a reality check, and while we might know that it can be a powerful learning tool, we can become frustrated that we have not made as much progress as we had hoped. How could I still be dealing with such a basic issue? I’ve been at this for how long and this is still something that I have not resolved? These and other questions can quickly occupy our thoughts. If you have the confidence and fortitude to work through these questions, they can be powerful and useful.

Counting the Cost

And while I realize that some people experience so much self-doubt that what I am about to state might be unwise for them, in my own work and leadership, I find self-doubt to be a good and important opportunity to count the cost of my work at the time. Yes, I realize that negative feedback is a chance to learn and grow. At the same time, I also need to be honest with myself and candid about whether I am truly committed to putting in the hard and sometimes unpleasant work of facing the brutal facts, learning from them, and getting better in a given domain. If I’m not, then maybe I’m not cut out for the task at hand.

It is dangerous to just run from one role to another to escape the unpleasantness of negative feedback and associated self-doubt. At the same time, it can also be unhelpful to just persist in an area when you are not fully committed to the goal and ongoing improvement. As such, self-doubt gives us a chance to count the cost.

More Skills Needed?

Sometimes we experience self-doubt even when we are more than capable, and when we are performing at our peak. We let these questions and moments of uncertainty find their way into our minds and we feed them by attending to them. Before long, the few questions and doubts occupy our thoughts so much that they overwhelm other good and important efforts. I realize that is not always helpful or healthy, but here is another thing that I’ve learned from these moments. Sometimes when I experience self-doubt in such moments, it is to tell me something. Yes, I might be at my peak at the moment, but there is another part of my mind that is already starting to think about what is next, about what is needed to take this to the next level. As such, I’ve learned to appreciate and pay attention to this indicator, because it is sometimes hinting that I need to develop new knowledge and skills to reach that next level.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Maybe you’ve heard that lesson before. It is a common rule shared with young people who are woodworking for the first time or working on even simple carpentry projects. It is always wise to double-check your measurements because you usually only get one shot to get the cutting part right. This works in more areas than just carpentry. There are plenty of decisions that we need to make in educational leadership or leading a new initiative that are much better addressed on the front end. It is wiser to confirm that we are ready before venturing into something.

This doesn’t mean that we should be frozen by insecurity or uncertainty. I’m not referring to people who wait far too long to make the call and move forward. At the same time, some things are best addressed by “checking twice” and I find a little self-doubt to actually help me with this. It reminds me that I am not above making even simple or rookie mistakes with leadership and innovation. As such, I stop, check things out one more time, and then move forward.

One area in my own work where I appreciate this is when it comes to what I consider one of the most important jobs in most learning organizations, hiring the right people. Not getting the right people can set you back months or longer. As such, it is far better to remind yourself that it is much easier to check your assessment. Realize that you don’t always get this right and use that fact to take the time to confirm your assessment. Maybe you invite more feedback. You conduct one more round of interviews. You follow-up with references. Whatever the case, a bit of self-doubt, as long as you don’t let it inhibit your ultimate decision-making, can sometimes slow you down just enough to make better decisions.


Almost anything taken to an extreme can become harmless. Even something as seemingly good as clean water can be deadly if you drink too much of it. As such, I realize that some people are held back by their self-doubts. It is wild and uncontrolled. In addition to this, I don’t particularly enjoy the experience of self-doubt much of the time. Yet, I’ve come to appreciate its benefits as well. It gives me a reality check at times. It provides me with a chance to check my motives and resolve, to count the cost. Am I really committed to doing what it takes to see this through? It alerts me to the need to develop new knowledge and skill so that I can more effectively tackle current and future challenges. On top of that, it gives me a healthy measure of caution that, in turn, prompts me to look both ways before crossing the educational innovation street.