Parents often ask me what their kids should study in college. Furthermore, some of my students, when I explain to them why a grounding in a basic academic discipline is important, told me that they wished they had talked to me before they picked their college major. So, let me lay out the case for getting a basic academic discipline under your belt.
Not all disciplines in higher education are academic disciplines. That label is reserved for a select few such as physics, chemistry, biology, economics, math, etc. In my book, Rough Diamonds ( https://geni.us/RoughDiamonds ), I explain what makes a discipline an academic one and why it is so important to be exposed to such a discipline, especially in the current era of information overload. I do it in reference to business education.
As a former business-school dean, I did at one time manage an undergraduate program in business but I never felt quite comfortable with it. My apprehension comes from business not being an academic discipline. As most applied fields of study do, business borrows from academic disciplines but it is not one itself.
My arguments for studying an academic discipline don’t have much to do with the subject matter itself. Economics is an academic discipline but I am not going to argue that we should all become economists. My arguments go beyond the subject matter and find their origin in what makes a field like economics an academic discipline.
Academic disciplines have two characteristics in common: rigor and theory. Rigor characterizes the process of scientific inquiry that was adhered to in creating the knowledge in the field. Theory refers to conceptual developments beyond – but based on – the empirical observations unequivocally ascertained in that process. The power of academic disciplines lies precisely in them having solid theoretical underpinnings that are steeped in facts.
My basic argument for studying a basic academic discipline in college is this: do it for what makes that discipline a rigorous science. In there lie 5 benefits that are becoming all the more important as we are incessantly bombarded with questionable information and face the emergent need for lifelong learning. Here are these 5 benefits:
- It Gives You a Solid Foundation
Studying a basic academic discipline is pouring intellectual concrete. On one hand, learning its theoretical underpinnings will calibrate your mind and thought processes to run at a more intelligent level. On the other, you will acquire a knowledge base that you can build on or fall back on when new learning challenges arise.
Non-academic disciplines such as business will not give you the same intellectual depth in substance and in mental processing. You will acquire applied knowledge that rests on the theoretical tenets of basic disciplines but you will lack a full comprehension of those tenets. Because of this, you will be handicapped in your ability to extend or build on the knowledge you acquire. Attempting to do so would be akin to extending a bridge not knowing whether the pilons can support it. You would just be flying blind. That is precisely why medical students dive into chemistry and biology before touching any human body. Let’s face it, none of us would let a surgeon slice away at our body if we knew that he/she had no fundamental understanding of human biology.
2. It Exposes You to the Process of Scientific Inquiry
Submergence in an academic disciplines will expose you to the rigorous process of scientific inquiry and analysis. Through this, you will become familiar with the tools and techniques that are used to create sound and robust knowledge. You will also develop an understanding of why rigorous scientific standards are absolutely necessary in the creation of knowledge.
Basic academic disciplines have a knowledge base that was created on the back of rigorous empirical observation, analysis and testing. Fields such as economics or physics don’t just accept any opinion or statement as truth, no matter who makes it. Any speculation that could move the field forward is submitted to rigorous scientific testing and verification. Only hypotheses that withstand the rigor of such testing and verification will be integrated as building blocks to expand the theoretical underpinnings of the discipline. There is just no room for smoke and mirrors in basic academic disciplines.
3. It Strengthens the Quality of Your Thinking
Exposure to the process of scientific inquiry will also train you in how to construct theoretical arguments on the back of empirical observation. Solid and sound theoretical conceptualizations are exactly what makes basic academic disciplines so powerful.
One of the crucial benefits in studying such a discipline is that one really learns how to think in a rigorous and critical manner. One truly learns what questions to ask and how to ask them. This sharpens inquisitive intelligence, a valuable skill in times of rapid and fundamental change. In those times, when answers might be elusive because of numerous uncertainties, knowing what questions to ask is a crucial skill. Exposure to a scientific discipline sharpens that skill.
4. It Makes You Information Literate
Knowing the process of scientific inquiry, you will become familiar with the tools and techniques used to separate fact from fiction. This is an invaluable skill in this day and age. As we are all plugged in 24/7, we get constantly bombarded with information, most of it unverified or unedited. Hence, we are left to our own wits to separate fact from fiction. To the untrained mind, opinions and factual statements are largely indistinguishable. That feeds much of the misinformation cyclones we see spinning around us.
Knowing how to assess source credibility, conduct convergent validity, check for false equivalence, etc. will help you assert what is fact and what is purre fiction. Hence, exposure to the nature of scientific rigor will make you information literate and that is an invaluable skill today.
5. It Prepares You for Lifelong Learning
Lifelong learning looms large on the horizon. Rapid advances and innovation are shortening the shelf life of knowledge in many fields. Because of this, many of us face the prospect of becoming outdated at a young age. To prevent this from happening and securing professional agility, we will all need to become lifelong learners; i.e., acquire the intrinsic motivation and ability to learn continuously.
Grounding in a basic academic discipline facilitate that. Such grounding is an access ramp to a versatile set of career opportunities (including some that might not even exist yet). It truly shapes an expandable intellect and should be thought of as the tuning of one’s intelligence engine to enable versatile learning and intellectual growth.
My own training in math thought me a versatile language that enabled me to travel many fields wisely. I did not limit me in any way or slot me into a specific career path. Through studying math, I acquired the ability to think analytically and that skill has proven invaluable throughout my career.
To summarize, let me dispel a common misconception: training in a basic academic discipline does not limit you to become a teacher of that discipline. I studied math and love it but becoming a math teacher was never the objective or the ambition. I saw math as a key that would open many doors. That is also the reason why many top consulting companies recruit graduates in biology, psychology, math, etc. over kids with an undergraduate business degree. Furthermore, if you look at successful startups, many were created by kids with an academic discipline under their belt. All this solidifies my arguments for picking a basic academic discipline as a concentration in college. It will prepare you so much better for life.
In conclusion, the concentration one selects for a college education should provide a solid foundation and, in the process of laying that foundation, shape a mindset that enables intelligent growth well beyond it.