Liberal Education

The Challenge of Liberal Education: Past, Present, and Future

We live in a world that is fundamentally new--new in the often fearful interconnectedness of regions, states, and people; new in both the scope of the challenges we face in finding and sustaining peace and in the consequences we face if we fail to achieve peace; and new, too, in the heterogeneity of the peoples with whom we live, work, and communicate. As globalization has changed the world we know, it has brought great opportunity and challenge and it has added renewed vigor to old, familiar questions. One such question is the one I would like to take up: What can we learn from the past to enliven our thinking about liberal education in the present and future?

Let me begin with two comments on the current situation of American higher education. The first is simple. According to a recent report of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, higher education today is significantly more professional and technical in orientation than it was thirty years ago. In 1970, 50 percent of all bachelor's degrees were awarded in a liberal arts subject. In 2000, nearly 60 percent of the degrees were awarded in a pre-professional or technical field. I could multiply the statistics, but I do not think that is necessary to make the point. Today's college students do not have time or money to waste. They are careful consumers. And they are voting with their feet for more vocationally oriented programs of study.

My second observation derives from an essay by the journalist Nicholas Lemann, called "The Kids in the Conference Room." It is about recent college graduates, mostly from highly selective institutions, who are recruited to work at consulting firms for at least a few years after graduation. As Lemann put it, working for McKinsey & Co., or some close approximate, is "the present-day equivalent of working for the C.I.A. in the nineteen-fifties, or the Peace Corps in the sixties, or Ralph Nader in the seventies, or First Boston in the eighties--[it is] the job that encapsulates the Zeitgeist of the moment." Lemann goes on to point out that working for McKinsey for a few years is "an ideal placeholder" for bright young people, who leave college with heavy debt and no certain idea of where they want to end up vocationally.

To me, there is a disturbing paradox evident in the data presented in the Carnegie Corporation's report and the observation made by Lemann. On the one hand, student course selection indicates that they want their college education to prepare them for careers. On the other hand, by contrast, those students who attend our most selective institutions--all of which, I might add, consider themselves liberal arts colleges and universities--graduate without a clear sense of vocational direction. At a time of extreme social challenge, we seem to have few alternatives between clear and, inevitably, rather narrow vocational preparation and seemingly directionless programs of liberal study. This makes me wonder whether in the challenge of our moment in history there is not a way to enliven the liberal arts by organizing them around deliberate consideration of what it means to have a vocation.

Having a calling

The word vocation implies more than earning a living or having a career. The word vocation implies having a calling: knowing who one is, what one believes, what one values, and where one stands in the world. A sense of vocation is not something fully achieved early in life. For those of us who are lucky, it grows over time, becomes more articulate, and deepens. Granting, then, that a sense of vocation develops over time, it is still not unreasonable to suggest that one purpose of a college education, and a central purpose of liberal education, should be to nurture an initial sense of vocation. This might encompass personal dispositions such as awareness of the importance of deliberate choices, individual agency, and social connection as well as recognition, albeit initial, of the ways of thinking and acting that seem most personally congenial. It should also include a capacity for civic intelligence. This requires that one recognize one's personal stake in public problems, global as well as domestic. It also necessitates respect for tolerance, the rights of others, evidence-based decision making, and deliberative judgment--in a word, respect for the values of due process that are essential to a democratic way of life. Vocation is not simply about an individual calling. It is about one's calling within one's society and, increasingly, across different societies around the world.

Historically, it is quite easy to see the power of vocation as a driving force in the education of individual people. One might even venture that vocation, broadly defined, in the terms I have just described, tends usually to be the theme that links the different experiences that define an individual's education. Bearing in mind that I am trying to draw from history to help us think well about the liberal arts today and tomorrow, let me illustrate the importance of vocation by saying a few words about the education of some very well-known people.

Benjamin Franklin

The first person is Benjamin Franklin, who left us a wonderful record of his life in his Autobiography. Franklin was born in Puritan Boston in 1706, the tenth son and fifteenth child of Josiah Franklin and his second wife, Abiah. Intended for the ministry by his father, Ben was sent to what is now called the Boston Latin School at the age of eight. He survived only a year. The tuition at Boston Latin was high, and Ben was not sufficiently pious to make a promising candidate for the ministry. His penchant for practical efficiency led him to suggest to his father that he say grace over the family's food once for the entire year rather than before every meal. A struggling candle maker, Josiah quickly realized that Ben was not suited for the church.

At that point, a search for vocation began. Nothing appealed to young Ben, so, in desperation, Josiah apprenticed Ben to his older brother James, who was a printer.

It was as a printer's apprentice that Ben Franklin began quite self-consciously to find ways to understand who he was as a person. He did this initially by taking on the roles of people he was not. While working for his brother James, Ben wrote fourteen essays describing the complaints of a poor rural widow, whom he named Silence Dogood. In so doing, he initiated a process of self-definition that one can also see in Poor Richard's Almanac, which Franklin wrote as a prosperous printer in Philadelphia, or in reports and portraits of Franklin as a seasoned diplomat, parading around Paris dressed as a rural hick in a coonskin cap. Repeatedly throughout his life, Ben Franklin sought, defined, and clarified who he was in relation to others, by juxtaposing his own persona with those of others different from him.

Knowing oneself

If what might be described as role playing was an important part of Franklin's search for vocation, so were his various deliberate attempts at self-improvement. As a young man, for example, Ben created a chart to measure his progress toward moral perfection. It began with fairly obvious virtues such as "Temperance--Eat not to dullness. Drink not to elevation." And it ended with more adventuresome ones like "Humility--Imitate Jesus and Socrates." As a Philadelphia merchant, Franklin organized the Junto, a discussion group that considered ways to better the city and then sponsored projects to carry out specific reforms and improvements. Whether charting his own progress toward perfection or examining his city's adequacy as a growing urban center, Franklin was studying who he was, what his responsibilities were as a virtuous person or a civic leader, and, especially in the case of the Junto, how actions taken for the public good advanced not only the well-being of his fellow citizens of Philadelphia, but also his own stature as a first citizen and, increasingly, as a very wealthy printer and statesman.

If Franklin's own education was energized by an extraordinarily self-conscious effort constantly to find a congenial, public role for himself--a vocation--so, too, were his writings about education predicated on the importance of vocation. Consider as an example, the "Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania," which was a plan for what became the University of Pennsylvania. In this document, Franklin admitted, "It would be well if [the youth of Pennsylvania] could be taught every Thing that is useful and every Thing that is ornamental." But Franklin observed: "Art is long, and [the students'] Time is short. It is therefore propos'd that they learn those Things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental, regard being had to the Professions for which they are intended." Here, subsequent occupation became an explicit guide in the selection of the subjects to be studied.

In line with his emphasis on vocation, Franklin insisted that the curriculum for the new university be modern. It was to be free of medieval anachronism. Thus, it should include contemporary writers along with the classics. Although all students should study English grammar, instruction in foreign languages should vary by future profession. Franklin did not dispense with all traditional learning, but the curriculum he generated reflected his insistent belief that, by preparing young men for a useful role in the world, advanced learning could have greater meaning for both the individual and the society of which that individual was a part (women, it was then, of course, presumed, did not need advanced education). Having been essential to his own education, vocation became a foundation for the education Franklin recommended for others.

Jane Addams

Jane Addams's life was also inspired by a search for vocation. Growing up in central Illinois, Addams greatly admired her father, a prominent local lawyer and first citizen of Cedarville, Illinois, with whom she had an especially close relationship since her mother died when she was two. She recalled in her autobiography that, as a child, she had spent many hours trying to imitate her father. But, of course, Addams could not imitate her father exactly since as a woman her occupational choices were restricted.

Rather than retreat to a traditional role, Addams instead embraced the fact of gender limitation and defined herself and her generation in opposition to traditional expectations. Speaking of changes in the education offered to women, as a student at Rockford Seminary in 1881, Addams said: "[Women's education] has passed from accomplishments and the arts of pleasing, to the development of her intellectual force, and capability for direct labor. She wishes not to be a man, nor like a man, but she claims the same right to independent thought and action…. As young women of the 19th century, we gladly claim these privileges, and proudly assert our independence… . So we have planned to be ‘Breadgivers' throughout our lives; believing….that the only true and honorable life is now filled with good works and honest toil….[we will] thus happily fulfill Woman's Noblest Mission."

The articulate and self-conscious search for vocation that Jane Addams was able to describe in this statement had been shaped by the formal study in which she engaged at Rockford. The curriculum, while Addams was a student there, included Latin, Greek, German, geology, astronomy, botany, medieval history, civil government, music, American literature, and evidence of Christianity. But, as her peers recalled, "the intellectual ozone" that exuded from "her vicinity" came from her unusual determination and purpose. Jane Addams's insistent wish to find a way to express her ideals and talents, despite the limitations imposed on her as a woman, was clearly an extended and successful search for vocation.

That search, of course, eventually led her to the West Side of Chicago, where, with Ellen Gates Starr, she founded Hull House, a world-famous social settlement that provided social, educational, and cultural services to the diverse immigrant population of that neighborhood. Hull House's fame came, in part, from the fact that Jane Addams helped to support it by writing constantly for magazines and by lecturing. But it is important to realize that it was not merely economics that drove Jane Addams's public expressions. It was both a desire to educate the educated middle-class public about how their neighbors lived and also to continue to work out for herself what she was doing and why it mattered. Questions of vocation continued to drive Jane Addams's education even after she founded Hull House.

W.E.B. Du Bois

As an educated woman, Addams was constrained by the fact of her sex, and yet eager to be effective in the world. One could say that she bore the burden of what her contemporary W.E.B. Du Bois called a "double consciousness." Perhaps a sense of social marginality is always at the root of soul-searching concerning who one is and where one can contribute to the common good. Certainly that was the case for Du Bois, who, throughout his long life struggled to understand whether and how he, as a black man, could be an American. Like Addams, Du Bois turned his personal anguish about vocation into sometimes stinging, always acute social criticism. His keenest insight was probably the line that introduced the second chapter of Souls of Black Folk: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." However that may be, having learned as a young schoolboy in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, that he was seen as different and "a problem" by his classmates, Du Bois spent most of his ninety-five years writing about what he could and could not do as a Black American. Even at the very end of his life, when he left the United States for Ghana, Du Bois was still figuring out his place in the world.

Searching for vocation is a deep human need that different cultures and different historical eras have treated differently. My suggestion here is that colleges and universities today need to acknowledge the educative drive one can see in the lives of people like W.E.B. Du Bois, Jane Addams, and Benjamin Franklin, and, recognizing the essentially vocational character of that drive, find ways to make vocational exploration central to liberal education.

Vocational exploration and faculty roles

I trust that the difference I assume between vocational and occupational exploration is clear already. Vocational exploration is about identity formation within the context of a particular society and a particular time. Occupational exploration, by contrast, is considering one's job alternatives. Vocational exploration is, in my view, the job of the faculty; occupational exploration is a matter for the office of career services.

To make vocational exploration a more important aspect of liberal education, faculty will need to re-think their roles. They will need to take seriously John Dewey's admonition that if one teaches math, history, or science in school, one must remember that it is people that one is really teaching, and not the subject matter. The subject matter is the medium through which one seeks to nurture habits of deliberation and orientations toward inquiry. It is the medium through which one helps people to learn to learn. Hopefully, the subject matter of the school curriculum is also important knowledge that is worth mastering. Still, it is worth acknowledging that teaching is not merely about furnishing the mind. It is equally, if not more importantly, about shaping, energizing, and refining the mind.
This is difficult for teachers in K-12 schools to keep in mind, and it is even more difficult for professors. Virtually all professors are trained as scholars. A number are now also being trained as teachers. Even when teaching is presented to graduate students as an art to be valued and mastered, it is still one's scholarly credentials that tend to get one a job, and it is certainly one's scholarly credentials that determine whether one wins tenure. Hence, it will take determined, steady work to convince faculty members that they are, first, teaching young people, and secondly, teaching some aspect of the field they profess.

More important, giving increased primacy to overall student development will also necessitate institutional reform. As we all know, colleges and universities, especially the most selective, are reluctant to modify the model that has helped them to thrive for more than fifty years. As Louis Menand recently observed in the New York Review of Books, from the end of World War II until quite recently, universities flourished if they gave priority to research and publication and increasingly specialized knowledge. This enabled the faculty to view their teaching and advisement responsibilities as less important than their "own work," which was fairly transparent code for going to the library or laboratory to develop new ideas.

Giving teaching and advisement equal priority among faculty activities will be necessary to engage faculty more centrally in the lives and vocational concerns of their students. And that is not all that will need to be altered to give more emphasis to matters of vocation.

Humanistic values

Generally, today, core liberal arts subjects are taught in ways that are intended to give students an introduction to characteristic ways of thinking in a discipline, to the essential elements of an area, and, more generally, to what I would call the map of knowledge in some particular domain. All that is important. But the purposes currently most commonly associated with liberal arts study represent an unnecessarily narrow conception of why one should read Shakespeare or consider the ideas of French philosophers.

In addition to their canonical value, subjects like these have humanistic value. They can and should encourage thought about oneself and others and about virtue and vice--the good, the bad, and the ugly. They can and should encourage thought about vocation, in the broad sense in which I am using this word. As the philosopher William James once asserted, a liberal education should "help you…know a good man when you see him." That is because a liberal education, at least according to James, is not a matter of taking certain specific courses, but rather of viewing any subject in terms of its "humanistic value," its value to illuminate the human condition.

Of course, in many liberal arts classes there is discussion of the humanistic side of things. But without neglecting canonical perspectives, which are important for helping students locate knowledge in historical or cultural perspective, the humanistic side of things could be given greater emphasis if faculty members spent more time talking with students about what they could learn and what they are learning about their own interests, values, and sense of person and place as well as what they are learning about the subject matter in question.

Going "meta" with students, by which I mean helping them realize that they should be learning about themselves while reading the Tempest or debating Camus and not merely becoming culturally literate, is not something, at least in my experience, that faculty members tend to do systematically and on a regular basis. They tend not to do this because they tend not to have learned about meta-cognition. They tend not to know that it is pedagogically powerful to help students understand how and why they can learn what they are learning. Being subject-matter specialists as opposed to teachers, they tend not to touch upon the personal because they are instead inclined to focus on insuring an understanding of, say, the play's structure or meaning. Taking this one step further to capture in addition how and why the play connects to particular students is to take a step beyond a faculty member's role at least as traditionally configured. It would require pedagogical knowledge that many professors lack. But doing this would likely enhance a student's interest. It would offer a vital, personal reason for studying Shakespeare beyond knowing that somehow it is good to be "cultured."

Vocational interests can make the liberal arts more compelling to students, and so can tying programs of liberal education quite directly to the world and its problems. This is happening increasingly on college campuses today as more and more institutions offer programs of service learning. More often than not, however, such programs are special courses often linked to community service of one kind or another. What I have in mind is broader.

Emerson observed that without action "thought can never ripen into truth." If that is, indeed, the case, as I believe it is, then, virtually all college classes should have some kind of practicum attached to them. There is a lot of this already going on, but there needs to be more translation of classroom abstractions into action. This would enhance learning because the test of knowledge is in its application and also because constantly having opportunities to act in the world will help students develop a sense of vocation.

Having to help their students apply the models and theories they were presenting in their classes would also present faculty with a salutary challenge. After all, the efficacy of a professor's ideas would be evident in his or her students' worldly competence. That is a high threshold for faculty accountability, but one that is not out of line in our times. The challenges we face domestically and globally are vast. With poverty, disease, and inequity fueling attacks on secular democracies around the world, we cannot allow colleges and universities to be home to what Alfred North Whitehead called "inert ideas." Instead, we need to encourage faculty to become engaged with the problems around us in ways that will at once contribute to our society as well as to their students and their own competence and even wisdom as scholars.

Recalling our mission

None of what I have said is very new or original. But I believe that the problems facing all of us require recalling what our collective mission is. Colleges and universities grew up across the United States for all sorts of reasons. Many were founded to insure the continuance of a particular religious group. Some were established to increase the land values in a small town. All were intended to educate people who could provide the leadership necessary to improve society. That's why the capstone experience for nineteenth century college students at liberal arts colleges was a course in moral philosophy usually taught by the college's president. The course was intended to insure that graduates would know their responsibilities as college-educated people (actually, with few exceptions, college-educated men). It provided a last chance to inculcate values and a sense of one's self as an educated citizen. It offered a final window on the opportunities and challenges then current in the locality and the region and across the United States.

I do not entirely live in the past and I do not think we can revive moral philosophy classes. But I do think we need to re-embrace the logic behind them. Liberal education should establish one's sense of direction, one's knowledge of one's self as an active, effective person and citizen. Liberal education should ready one to participate in the defining issues of our times. Whether it's the AIDS epidemic in southern Africa, the chaos of states like Afghanistan that lack basic civil infrastructures, or the social anomalies we observe in our own country where there are, for example, racial achievement gaps among high school students in both wealthy, racially integrated suburbs and blighted urban areas, social challenges like these should be familiar to graduates of liberal arts colleges. They should have helped to define how graduates see themselves making a difference in the world.

By giving renewed emphasis to their vocational purposes, liberal arts colleges and universities can help people live productively, responsibly, and well, amidst all the confusions of the present times. By making matters of vocation central to all they do, liberal arts colleges and universities can play a more direct role in improving the world. This is not to say that detached, seemingly idle speculation and abstract knowledge do not have value--great value--in institutions of liberal learning. They do. My concern is balance and underscoring the educative power of vocational interests. The famed social psychologist Kurt Lewin once said, "There is nothing so useful as a good theory," and following his logic, I would like to close by saying: There is nothing more liberal or liberating than education approached with matters of vocation foremost in mind. Our students seem to know that. We should give them the kind of education they want and deserve.

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann is Charles Warren Professor of the history of American education and dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Excerpted from the keynote address at AAC&U's 2003 Annual Meeting.

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