Peer Review

For a Good Life: Integrating Liberal and Civic Arts Education with Work

“The task of democracy is forever the creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.
—John Dewey

“The return from your work must be the satisfaction which that work brings you and the world’s need of that work. With this, life is heaven, or as near as you can get. Without this—with work which you despise, which bores you and which the world does not need—this life is hell.”
—W. E. B. DuBois


During our work on AAC&U’s Civic Learning at the Intersections: Liberal Arts as Civic Arts project, we heard from a fine, varied group of people—academics with experience in engaged civic education; professionals from fields including medicine, business, government, and journalism; research universities and community colleges; philanthropies; and people of differing backgrounds, ages, and communities.

As we assessed where we are in redesigning and reclaiming a form of liberal education that centers on civic arts of responsible public action—now intersecting with work—we heard two differing kinds of stories. The first confirms the belief that civic and liberal arts are mutually enhancing and, together, prepare students to find, or make, good work for themselves and for others. Three examples:

“My family worked in the fields and in our community. I didn’t know I was learning civic arts, but in college, where they talked about it, I found I had. I was able to become part of this community too, and on the way I fell in love with art. Put it all together, and now I work for a museum that is reaching out to communities beyond its historic audience.”

“I’ve been in touch with students who have graduated. They’ve taken what they learned in the social sciences and the work we did with social justice efforts into great careers—holding elected public office; working in unions; creating businesses to provide jobs for their communities. There’s no question about it. Learning social responsibility gave them a sense of their own worth and abilities, a far wider sense of life’s possibilities, and the skills and knowledge to support their choices.”

“A business paying attention to nothing except the bottom line risks failure. Employers and employees need to understand the world they live and work in, or they will make mistakes. Companies led by people who don’t care about civic life and the public sector are forgetting that you can’t do business without stable government, good education, functional infrastructure. Business has a huge stake in happy employees and a strong civic life.”

We also heard contrasting observations that educating for work “in the real world” does—or some say ought to—mean training for jobs, shorn of the ‘frills’ of civic or liberal arts:

“There is increasing need to educate for specific jobs. Public funds are limited; fields that do not lead directly to jobs are luxuries.”

“To be accountable, schools are being publicly evaluated on the basis of the starting salaries of their graduates.”

“There are well-educated CEOs who say they want employees with the abilities developed by the liberal arts, especially critical thinking. But human resources offices look for skill sets, not history majors or philosophers.”

Clearly there is tension between these two viewpoints. While we can still make the familiar case for liberal education for social responsibility, self-discovery, the joy of learning, and the capacity to keep learning—education for a richly varied personal, social, and cultural life—it is made today in a world in which the message that a college education is only a means to a well-paying first job has a lot of air play and comes from public figures, including governors, as well as prospective students and parents. Meanwhile, billionaire drop-outs are among the cultural heroes of this age.

Liberal arts education, civic education, education for work: the case for each of these has its proponents, and they rarely speak quite the same language. That is not just a matter of rhetoric. A hierarchical history has informed our present situation, along with differing philosophies of life, and, as always, real conflicts of interest. How can we rise above taking sides and choose instead the ongoing experiment that is also our history—the one that asks us to keep learning how to educate well and truly in a country aspiring to democracy?

It is relatively easy just to leave things as they are while adding a few new provisions and requirements. We have long done just that. The philosophy professor teaches her field; the social work professor teaches his; required service learning is arranged through that office, and it is left to students to integrate their learning. The service learning office, the center for engagement, civic institutes, interdisciplinary programs, and centers for democratic studies are among provisions that have been added.

Not Just Additive Changes

All this can indeed be useful, but the changes we are exploring ask more of us. For instance, not only do all fields raise ethical issues—they all have histories, socio-political contexts, psychological effects, linguistic dimensions. No job, no profession, no discipline exists in a silo. We are falsifying what we teach when we define a subject too narrowly. We are even undercutting the possibility of ethics that can guide choices in our multi-dimensional world.

Furthermore, the additive approach costs money in budget-cutting times, and anything not integrated with a defined core is vulnerable to being cut. The additive approach, which seems easy because it rocks few boats, can be both unsound and not strategic. To move beyond it, then, we explored an alternative—thinking from and beyond the intersections. Some gleanings:

  • Students ought to have as many chances as possible to learn who they are, what they can and love to do in the fullness of their own special being, what there is to do in this life, and that they have choices and responsibilities. An integrated civic, liberal, and work education can serve those ends.
  • People need to know, as they do not now, that higher education is responsive to their work concerns. We shouldn’t misspeak our values as if jobs and “economic competitiveness” are all we care about, but the alternative is not to repeat the usual case for liberal education. That case needs to be made now in demonstrable relation to all subjects, for all students, in all kinds of schools. Otherwise, it remains a set of abstractions that are easily heard as no more than “Trust me, this will be useful.”
  • Higher education has been divided—usually hierarchically—between theory and practice, pure and applied research, education and training, the privileged and the rest. Breaching hierarchy can seem to challenge quality. Can we consider now how practical and theoretical education keep each other honest, and each in its way excellent?
  • Faculty need to be central to efforts to move from additive, to intersectional, to integrative civic, liberal, and work studies because scholarship and expertise provide the content and judgment of quality needed for sound academic programs.
  • Higher education cannot quickly or directly change worlds of work or political realities. It can, however, fulfill its own civic roles in appropriate ways (including supporting critics and contrarians, analysts and artists, and other free thinkers).

Finally, another caveat: “integrating” does not mean ignoring significant differences.

Action, as public life; work, as economic life; and education, as conservation and renewal of knowledge, arts, and cultures, entail each other, but are also markedly distinct. We enact freedom and authority differently, and evaluate by differing standards when we are working, studying, teaching, acting. For instance, we do not test truth by negotiation. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired people; he could neither order them to march to Selma nor fail or fire them if they chose not to. There are overlaps, complementarities, contradictions, confusions when we are dealing with human lives, not logical abstractions. We want neither the old divisions, nor a collapse into sameness: an integrated civic, liberal, and work education should retain significant distinctiveness as appropriate.

Through this work we are experimenting, inviting creativity where hierarchies and silos blocked it, bringing theory and practice into mutually challenging dialogue, and seeing how scholars, activists, artists, workers, communities, professions, and employers can inform and improve each other—not to make them alike, and not all the time, but seriously and often enough to keep the windows open, and the doors.

Elizabeth Minnich is senior scholar at AAC&U

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