The Advantage of Breadth

Posted: May 12, 2011 in Anecdotes
Tags: , , , ,

Back in my day, we didn’t have this fancy Melbourne Model whatchamacall it. We also had to walk 30 miles to get from one lecture to the next. In the snow. Without shoes on. Backwards.

I’m an old school undergrad. Or, at least, that’s what we call ourselves to pretend we’re all young and hip (perhaps half the problem is referring to ourselves as ‘hip’).

I completed my Bachelor Degree under the old model. So I profess my ignorance to many of the intricacies of the Melbourne Model. But one thing I remember was the controversy. I remember a lot of the ‘old school’ people complaining about the breadth component. It took me a while before I bothered to find out what breadth was.

Each year, a student is required to take two breadth subjects; this means a subject from a faculty besides your own (or inter-disciplinary).

“What?” I hear you say. “I’m here to do a Science degree, not to take non-science subjects!” At least, this is what I heard the masses complaining about a few years ago.

To take a Science degree, in fact any degree, with the notion that you should only take those subjects is – I feel – to miss out on a truly amazing opportunity.

Under my degree, we didn’t have any such requirements. But in first year, I took two History and Philosophy of Science [HPS] subjects. It was perhaps the best decision I ever made. One subject in particular was perhaps the best subject I did in my degree, taught by one of the most revered lecturers at The University of Melbourne. He retired that year, and the turn out to his last Science, Philosophy and History lecturer was phenomenal: people were crowding the hallway to hear it.

I was amazed. I was inspired. I had to find out more.

So I continued taking HPS subjects: I believed that in order to use science, to be a scientist and to move forward within science, I ought to know where we’d come from.

But more than that, I loved the classes. So much I ended up co-majoring in HPS. Like any faculty, a few of the subjects were so-so. But many of them were the most rewarding subjects I ever had the pleasure of taking. HPS was called the hidden secret of The University of Melbourne. I quickly understood why.

What’s more, it was something entirely different from my other classes. The assessment was different, too. Essays rather than exams. Tutorials of philosophising, rather than calculations. It made my brain tick in an entirely different manner. Not to mention that, without HPS, my essay writing skills would have atrophied by the time they were finally called upon again in my 3rd year Science subjects.

It changed me as a scientist. It’s amazing how many misconceptions I hear on a daily basis about science and science history from scientists and non-scientists alike – even academics. I can recount several occasions when I was sitting in a lecture silently glad for what HPS gave me as I listened to some incorrect account of the Trial of Galileo, or of Darwin’s apparent ‘eureka’ moments. Without it, I wouldn’t have the knowledge, nor the skills to critically analyse what I was exposed to.

Breadth may or may not teach you any subject matter that you think you will use in your career. But it will teach you to think in a whole new manner. It will expose you to another way of learning and another way of thinking. Something that you will use in whatever career you pursue.

So whether you go to Melbourne University or not, I urge you to take that bull by the horns. There’s plenty of time to specialise in post-grad. Embrace the opportunity for all it’s worth: take subjects that sound fun, that interest you purely for the subject matter, not because it’s a prerequisite to something else.

It may just be one of the best things you ever do in your undergraduate life.

  1. Sarah says:

    Okay, you’ve perked my interest; what HPS subjects would you recommend?

    • Hi Sarah. I’m glad you asked! 😉

      There are a few HPS subjects I did that absolutely blew me away, but not all of them still exist today, sadly. Here’s some of what is left:

      One is God and The Natural Sciences. This subject looks at the history of religion and science and absolutely blows a lot of the myth making to smithereens. It is taught by Stephen Ames and Neil Thomason: both amazing lecturers, the latter being the one I mentioned above who got the mass turn out to his final lecture (he guests lectures in this subject).

      Second was Minds and Madness when I did it, but the class has since been retired. I believe the subject material has been incorporated into the Body, Mind and Medicine: A Dissection, which is a shame – but this is still taught by James Bradley so I reckon it will be fantastic.

      Last of all is Darwinism. For any budding scientist, I think this one is a must. It is also taught by James Bradley, who has been one of mine as well as many others favourite lecturers of all time. If you’re doing a degree in the biological sciences, I think this one is especially important for understanding the truth about where Darwinian evolution came from. It is a thoroughly engaging subject that will again bust a lot of the myths you’ve heard.

      Let us know if you want help with anything else!

  2. Stacy says:

    Hmmm…that Darwinism subject looks really good! Might have to consider squeezing that one in amongst my bio and chem 🙂 Is HPS part of science? It can’t be done as breadth can it?

    • HPS is an Arts/Science subject, in which case (and I’m not familiar entirely with the Melbourne Model cause I never did it) I think it can’t be taken as breadth, but I’m not actually sure. I’d definitely shoot off an email to double check with the faculty. It keeps changing and I keep losing track!

      However, my HPS lecturers always lamented that HPS was turning into a breadth course by default. It kind of is! In most of my classes, I was the only one taking it at a third year level (meaning the only one majoring in HPS). I think the most we ever had was 3 third years in one class!

      If you can fit it in, it’s definitely worth a go. James Bradley is a fantastic lecturer – not just in my opinion, but he is much loved by all. And hey, HPS subjects have no exams!

      – Rhiannon

  3. chanel says:

    I am doing Japanese post VCE for a breath, i cant say it teaches me to think in a different way but its fun. instead i have found the most gains out of fundamentals of physics. i was shocked the other day when i realised i liked the subject, despite my complaining all semester that it was too fast and i didnt understand it. through challenging myself with this prerequisite (for veterinary science) subject i have learnt concepts and material that i would have shied away from, had i not been made to do it. i have during this semester realised how peoples glasses correct their vision, how you can tell the direction of sound, the dopler effect, rainbows, friction- static and kinetic and why cats can jump (or fall) from very high buildings and survive. yes i have been prone to complaining, “this is so irrelevant” why would i ever need this stuff, that is until all the little pictures came togetehr and reminded me that this is life and we should not box ourselves into one discipline. while im not sure how i will go on the exam, a H1 is not what i intended for this subject, i think i have learnt a greater lesson than what the grade i recieve can tell me about myself.

    • Isn’t it funny how, in hindsight, subjects can appear a lot more valuable than they did at the time? You reminded me of when I was in high school and we learned logarithms in maths and I kept thinking how irrelevant it was – little did I’d be up to my eyeballs in it come statistical analysis of data!

      I’m glad to hear it has been such a positive experience for you.

      Thanks for your input, Chanel.
      – Rhiannon

  4. Tania says:

    I think breadth is great. Science can sometimes be overwhelming so it’s good to have a subject that you enjoy out of personal interest. Once we get into the work force, we can’t really just decide to go learn something just for fun, so why not do it and make it count towards your degree. I learnt two years of Japanese. Something I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to keep up with while working full time. There are also opportunities to get a diploma out of it so there are a lot of pros.

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