Brief introduction to the Learning in Depth program
When trying to describe what ought to be the result of an adequate education, nearly everyone suggests that the educated person should acquire a breadth of knowledge appropriate for informed citizenry and for general knowledge of the world, past and present. In addition, it is also commonly agreed that each educated person should know something in depth. There are, of course, disagreements about what is the most important knowledge to learn to fulfill both of these dual criteria of education, but nearly everyone agrees that in some degree both are required.
The first criterion leads to knowledge that can be fairly easily justified in terms of social utility. Justification for the second criterion--knowledge of something in depth--is less obvious, but, even so, lack of such knowledge leaves an individual without something that has always been considered a required feature of an educated mind. While difficult to pin down, knowledge in depth seems crucial in providing people with an adequate sense of the nature of knowledge, even beyond the area of their specializations, makes them less vulnerable to easy persuasion, makes them more critical thinkers, makes them less assertively confident in their opinions about things where secure knowledge is lacking, and provides essential material with which imaginations can work.
Currently we tend to spend nearly all our time in schools focusing on the breadth criterion—ensuring that students acquire the knowledge and skills needed for effective citizenship and employment. And we are not confident that we do this so well for the mass of students that we give much time to dealing with the acquisition of knowledge about something in depth, except for the most academically successful students. And is it clear that the way in which we allow some students to specialize in a particular subject during the later yeas of their schooling is inadequate to achieve the purposes of learning in depth.
The Learning in Depth proposal is that beginning in the earliest days of their school lives children should be randomly allotted a topic which they will then be supported in studying for the rest of their school careers. From the beginning, students will build portfolios about their topics. They will be given help in their explorations, especially in their early years, but they will become increasingly autonomous in pursuing knowledge about their topic. By the end of their schooling they will each know almost as much about their topic as anyone on earth.
This proposal for a new element of the curriculum is based on the belief that learning something in depth will add an important dimension to each person’s education, and also that this will actually help us better achieve the first criterion as well. It is further based on the principle that everything is wonderful, and the more one knows about anything, the more interesting it becomes. This principle is less obvious than it should be because our current forms of schooling makes learning in depth so rare.