The LEAP Challenge Blog

Liberal Education vs. Career Preparation: a False Dichotomy

In a recent column for Inside Higher Ed, Victor Ferrall Jr. followed up on his 2012 book Liberal Arts at the Brink with a “Valediction for the Liberal Arts,” predicting that the liberal arts and civic-minded liberal education will soon be replaced entirely by vocationally focused education. It’s not just student demand driving this change, Ferrall says—the liberal arts colleges that once championed liberal education have hastened its demise by compromising their traditional purposes and curricula in their attempts to rebrand themselves as sites of career preparation.

I’m glad to see that other commenters have already made the most obvious response to Mr. Ferrall: that liberal education and career preparation not only can but should blend together. Do we want narrowly trained teachers? Culturally blinkered engineers? Business leaders who are ignorant of the global context in which they function? Scientifically illiterate journalists? Or do we want a society where people preparing for any and all careers learn through liberal education to think analytically, act ethically, engage diverse perspectives, and keep the "big picture" centrally in view?

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)—now comprising 1,350 member institutions strong—takes the position that every college graduate needs and deserves the benefits of a horizon-expanding liberal education. Through AAC&U's ongoing LEAP initiative (Liberal Education and America's Promise), faculty and educational leaders across the country are working creatively and constructively to make liberal learning a resource for all our students and for the larger society. Hundreds of institutions and ten state systems are actively involved in creating guided learning pathways to a twenty-first-century liberal education.

As those who took part in AAC&U's Centennial Year explorations last month can attest, liberal education today is resurgent, not eviscerated. It is resurgent because those who are committed to a big picture and public-spirited liberal education embrace its value in the workplace as well as in a democratic society. You can find on our website myriad examples of colleges, universities, community colleges, and whole state systems that are working today to make liberal education more intentional, more empowering, more digitally adept, and more inclusive.

As AAC&U has long affirmed, liberal education for the twenty-first century is not restricted to an arbitrarily decided set of disciplines (economics in; education out) or to a subset of "true" liberal arts colleges. Rather, liberal education provides guiding goals and engaged learning practices for all students, all collegiate institutions, and all fields of study. The LEAP goals for liberal learning have been widely adopted across higher education and include (1) broad knowledge of science, culture, histories, and society, developed through general education and the major; (2) strong intellectual skills practiced across the curriculum, from first to final year, no matter what the choice of major; (3) ethical judgment and civic responsibility, acquired by exploring ethical and societal questions both in general education and in one’s major; and (4) demonstrated achievement in applying one’s liberal learning to a complex problem and related project.

“But shouldn’t liberal education be subversive rather than work-related?” asked one faculty member during a panel at AAC&U’s Centennial Annual Meeting. Mark Lindsay, the liberally educated executive who answered this question, made the obvious point. A liberal education, he said, prepares you to ask searching questions and then do something about them. It's the well-educated person who is best prepared to go against “the general flow” and help move an enterprise or project in a better direction.

I have long found it odd that well-intentioned people try to “protect the true liberal arts” by insisting that they remain resolutely nonvocational. To my mind, the long-term point of a great liberal education is to prepare graduates to use their learning to make a difference in all spheres of life: our democracy, the global community, the workplace, and their own families.

When the Association of American Colleges (as AAC&U was known prior to 1995) was founded in 1915 by 169 college presidents, predictions were widespread that the liberal arts college would soon disappear. After all, interest was rapidly declining in the classical curriculum on which many of these institutions prided themselves. But the liberal arts colleges moved creatively to reinvent themselves, in part by embracing the then new idea of “majors" and by providing opportunities for in-depth study in arts and sciences fields.

Today, many liberal arts colleges are adapting once again to meet twenty-first-century challenges. As a result, many of our liberal arts colleges (still about 25 percent of AAC&U's membership) are thriving hubs of innovation. When we are clear about the core aims of liberal education, there are many ways to achieve those aims. But liberal arts colleges will always have a special role in the ecology of great liberal learning.