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The Dead Specialist: Implications of Dealing Away Specialization for Development in Malawi and Elsew

Updated: Dec 30, 2019

How far are tertiary education institutions willing to take interdisciplinary studies? Why does combining chemistry and economics, history and engineering, or fine art and computer sciences, matter for the modern world and its future? And one would perhaps seek to answer what this means for Malawi’s development.

The education systems in Malawi and in much of the world are slowly waking up to the reality that a hardcore environmental scientist will easily be deemed useless if they will lack an additional set of skills that’ll reinforce their work in a world where decisions on environment are influenced by either politics or economics. The debate around global warming and the scientifically-proven human factors that exacerbate the emission of greenhouse gases, for example, are caught up in a political gridlock that may have an impact on how the American electorate votes in 2020’s presidential election. In our own backyard, the economic as well as environmental implications of the Lake Malawi Water Supply Project, which is expected to supply Lilongwe with Lake Malawi’s fresh water over a 120km away, has stalled on account of the project’s lack of consideration for every detail. The Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia is an economic enhancement behemoth that has critical international relations complications downstream as Africa’s longest river crosses Egypt on its way to the Mediterranean Sea.

To see the full implication of an intervention, in whatever sector it takes place, requires a global view of the full situation in which the intervention takes place in order to solve the world’s problems. And although this is the very reason multi-disciplinary leadership teams are put together in the first place, it is sometimes impossible to get consensus when a decision room is filled with single-minded faculties. Multi- or inter-disciplinary experts enjoy the currently infrequent attribute of being able to draw the linkages between seemingly unrelated parts or processes, as Virgin galactic, Blue Origin and Space X are doing to connect space flights and tourism.

Consequently, the most valuable workers of modern and future industries will not be the ones who are experts at one thing. As the world advances, almost every skill harnesses science by adopting either the physical sciences, as in a potter employing the most heat efficient furnace to cut on energy costs, or more abstract sciences like computing, as in the fine artist’s use of a Pen Display Graphic Monitor to draw digital cartoon images. The success of the modern artist, then, demands that an art-oriented individual earns a deep understanding of computers to be successful, efficient and able to even survive in a modern world. Zaluso Arts (@zalusoarts) in Malawi already features some of its affiliates using these technologies on its social media sites, indicating that art is more than the modest ability to curve lines on a piece of canvas.

But multi-disciplinarity should not be understood as a new phenomenon. Historically, the men and women that have shaped the education we have today were almost never single-stream individuals. Many philosophers in ancient Greece were also astronomers, theologists, mathematicians and sociologists. Aristotle, knowing Philosophy was inconsequential as a simply a collection of metaphysical thought he exceled at, was also an educationist and founded the Lyceum and the Peripatetic school of philosophy and Aristotelian tradition. One of the greatest economists, Jean Tirole, happens to have received several degrees in engineering and mathematics before he did a PhD in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In some established industries in Malawi, unconventional combination of skills have once or twice mattered in the success of some specialized companies. Let’s take the Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS), a government parastatal mandated to enforce production standards for particularly manufacturing goods. One of its past CEOs, the Late Austin Khulumula, graduated from University with an Economics and Chemistry degree. Almost unheard of in our country, the Late Mr. Khulumula had the suitable skills to put together management, regulation and scientific enquiry in the work of the Bureau. As we have come to learn, with the quality decline of many food products on the shelves of Malawi’s supermarkets in recent years, it is not easy to replace such a man in many industries.

In light of development in Malawi, there’s a justifiable case for strengthening our education through inter- as well as multi-disciplinary streams. First, it is because this is perhaps the only way Malawi will keep up with the fast pace the rest of the world is moving at. We need to understand that we face a double hurdle to get there, as we must not only catch up with developed countries, but must also alter our education curricula in ways that match or exceed the efforts these countries are making. Because they are actually considering these changes. We invite you to listen to Emilie Wapnick and Terri Trespicio to appreciate what multi-disciplinarity entails for us as individuals and the future of the world.

In Malawi, the overlaps that exist between culture and development continue to get the development practitioner’s blind eye. Yet, as we’ve argued before, it’s important to understand development through the lens of the people at the other end of the development intervention to understand how these actions will be embraced by the receiving individuals as well as their communities. For example, programs that target the elimination of gender-based violence (GBV) that are perpetuated by intimate partners must embrace the underpinnings of a matrilineal or a patrilineal culture. These might grant important insights as to the root causes without which a solution will only be rendered superficial. To cast even more light on the GBV phenomenon, a woman being abused in Lilongwe may be subjected to such abuse because of the emasculation her husband may experience in her village, whereas she may face harassment in Mzimba because her husband considers her a property which he will treat as he pleases.

And so the future of education does not seem enthused by the creation of specialists anymore. Although the systems’ adamance at the conservative educational model persists in developed countries, it is faltering at the attractiveness of more wider-reaching education programs.

On 6 November 2017, this website published an article on adaptive learning (click here) in developing countries like Malawi. To achieve this, the foresight of key people as Hon. Dr. William Susuwele Banda, M.P, the Minister of Education, Science and Technology will be most needed.

Perhaps next time the University of Malawi Chancellor graces a graduation ceremony, he will honor a Humanities student who will have double-majored in Computer Sciences.


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