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.