Depth vs. Breadth

Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller


C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

Eccentric visionary Buckminster Fuller believed that universities spend too much time graduating specialists when what we really need are generalists. Furthermore, he believed that all children are born with the natural instinct to think and learn holistically, and blamed society for interfering with this natural tendency to instead promote specialization (see his “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” for more info here).

C.S. Lewis however thought that we did a great disservice to children by trying to teach them about too many things instead of focusing on teaching a few things very well. He wrote:

“In those days a boy on the classical side officially did almost nothing but classics. I think this was wise; the greatest service we can do to education today is to teach fewer subjects. No one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty, and when we force a boy to be a mediocrity in a dozen subjects we destroy his standards, perhaps for life.” (see citation below)

I think they both made good points, but in reality we need both generalists and specialists. We need generalists like Steve Jobs or Leonardo DaVinci who can make the connections between widely disparate subjects such as art and science, in order to see something new. But we also need people who are really, really good at what they do, even if that means they don’t know much about anything else. I don’t need or want my surgeon to be a generalist, I want him or her to be the best specialist I can find.

Fortunately, it seems that people naturally gravitate towards one or the other. Those kids who become fixated on a topic early on and never seem to want to do anything else are future specialists. Alexander Graham Bell, Pierre Curie, Albert Einstein, Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong were all like that. If they were growing up today, we might have called them “geeks” in the sense that they were obsessed with their personal interests.

Those kids who seem interested in a wide range of topics but have trouble choosing just one might be future generalists. Thomas Edison, Agatha Christie, John Muir and Benjamin Franklin were like that.

So, how should you approach this dilemma as a homeschooling parent?

We don’t want to peg our kids as either specialists or generalists because we might be wrong, and it’s not really fair to label our kids with any preconceived notions that might limit what they believe about themselves.

I will propose two solutions . . . and the first is this: let your kids guide their own studies. If they are interested in a million different things, just roll with it and help them find the books or other resources they need to satisfy their curiosity. The same applies if they are only interested in one topic. Just keep feeding them more complex material as they need it.

This was the case with my son who is obsessed with programming and math. I had no idea what resources might be best for him to learn, but he knew. He researched all the books, tutorials, and online courses available to him and made up Amazon wish lists of bizarre titles, such as 3D Math Primer and Real-Time Collision Detection, for his birthdays. He definitely went into DEPTH with his programming studies.

We also covered other topics, because they were required by college admissions offices and my son wanted to go to college. However, these topics, such as English Composition, never fired him up the way programming did. This doesn’t mean he was completely oblivious to the outside world though. This is because of my second proposed solution: Living Books.

Living books, or those books written by talented authors with a passion for their subject, expose readers to meaningful context and information in a BROAD range of subjects.

One of my son’s favorite books was The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, not because he was particularly interested in serial killers but because of the historical context of the events surrounding the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. This led to an avid interest in Edison, Tesla and other inventors; along with other books set at the turn of the 20th century involving science or the rise of industry. This didn’t make him an expert on any of these subjects, but the books he read pulled together strands of world events, geography, business, science, ethics, history, economics, and others in a way that was enjoyable and memorable for him.

This doesn’t mean that every kid would like these sorts of books, but there are wonderful living books available for every possible interest. It’s just a matter of hunting them down. Here’s a few good online sources of inspiration:

The great thing about reading good books is that they introduce new ideas and topics to the reader or listener in a way that is meaningful, and thus more likely to be remembered than a textbook. Of course, a work of historical fiction will not be as thorough as a textbook, but if it leads your child to new interests or inspires deeper thinking, I’d say that’s a win.

Let your students choose which subjects they want to explore deeply, and rely on well-chosen living books to provide some breadth in their studies. I think Buckminster Fuller and C.S. Lewis would both be satisfied with this compromise.


Citation:  p 112-113, C.S. Lewis. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. New York 1955.

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