Liberal Education

Liberal Education and the Professions

In a much-quoted paper written a few years back, Carnegie Foundation President Lee Shulman challenges the widely held view that the liberal arts are endangered by the contemporary interest in all things practical. The real problem with the liberal arts, he writes, is "that they are not professional enough."

To renew and sustain the vitality of liberal education, Shulman maintains, we ought to make the liberal arts "even more professional." Arts and sciences disciplines would gain a great deal, he believes, if they consciously adopted such features of a profession as its commitment to service, its engagement with the realities of practice, and its cultivation of judgment in contexts of application and reflection. Under Shulman's leadership, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is now engaged in scholarly research on the role of liberal education in the "formation" of professionals.

In this issue of Liberal Education, Columbia University's Nicholas Lemann explores a closely related question from a somewhat different angle. In his keynote address at AAC&U's Annual Meeting, Lemann argues that professional schools belong in a major university only when they can meet three tests of liberal education: first, a continuing engagement with the profession's larger purposes and enduring questions; second, research that makes a major contribution to the quality of the profession; and finally, a critical and constructive engagement with the "profession's conduct, its ethical standards, its aspirations, and its proper place in society."

Shulman is a distinguished scholar who has spent his entire career in the academy; Lemann has been a working journalist and influential author who only recently entered the groves of academe. But from their different histories, each draws our attention to a crucial question confronting the liberal arts. Will liberal arts proponents maintain the twentieth-century insistence that liberal education is, by definition, knowledge pursued for its own sake, without attention to its practical implications? Or, will we now work proactively to create the new synergies--civic and vocational--between the liberal arts and professional practice that both Shulman and Lemann envision?

AAC&U's report, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, has already called for a more engaged and practical liberal education. The ultimate test for liberal education, the authors assert, is whether "graduates ...use knowledge thoughtfully in the wider world" (26). Since Greater Expectations was published, I've had many opportunities to explore this vision of new connections between liberal and professional education with AAC&U's members. Arts and sciences faculty tend to be receptive in principle but skeptical about feasibility. The real villains in this tale, they frequently assert, are the professional accreditors. Accreditation standards are so hegemonic, they say, that students in the various professional fields scarcely have any time remaining for an arts and sciences core.

There are two problems with this framing of the tensions between liberal arts and professional fields. First, the framing assumes that the liberal arts and sciences remain a separate sphere of endeavor, so that the only way one can "properly" achieve a liberal education is for students to take a substantial number of courses clearly labeled "arts and sciences." This assumption was certainly one of the foundational premises of the twentieth-century academy. But it is just this self-segregation of the arts and sciences that has led too many students--and indeed, much of our society--to assume that the liberal arts are "ornamental" rather than essential to the lives we actually lead.

The second problem with this diagnosis is that the "separate spheres" view of liberal learning is increasingly out of touch with where the professions themselves are moving. This spring, AAC&U has released a second report from the Greater Expectations initiative, entitled Taking Responsibility for the Quality of the Baccalaureate Degree. Framed by leaders in regional and professional accreditation, Taking Responsibility offers both encouragement and practical guidance to those who want to rethink the connections between the liberal arts and professional fields.

The centerpiece of this report--figuratively and literally--is a chart comparing the regional and specialized accreditors' expectations for student learning outcomes with the expectations of liberal arts proponents. What emerges from this comparison is a new conception of a strong liberal education--for the disciplines and professions alike--that goes beyond the "breadth of knowledge" agenda traditionally assigned to the arts and sciences core.

Taking Responsibility demonstrates that there is a new convergence, across both the professions and liberal education proponents, around a commonly valued set of liberal education capacities or outcomes. The list of commonly endorsed outcomes includes communication, inquiry/analysis, integrative learning, community/citizenship, ethics/values, global/multicultural learning, breadth of knowledge, lifelong learning, and the personal capacities to work successfully in contexts of collaboration and change.

Envisioning liberal education in terms of capacities or "practices" clears the way for new intersections between liberal education and professional competence. When we define liberal education primarily as subject matter, then it becomes quite a challenge to claim that all our students will (or should) actually "apply" their learning about Japanese art or the wars of early modern Europe. But if we expand the definition of liberal learning to include practices such as analysis, integrative learning, or a persistent concern with the civic, ethical, or cross-cultural implications of any particular issue, then it becomes transparently clear that these practices add rich value to all our endeavors, including the world of work. This isn't to say that liberal education should be defined exclusively in terms of capacities or practices. A liberal education also should foster deep understandings of society, self, culture, history, and the natural world.

But the larger point is that it is time to stop forcing our students--and our society--into artificial choices. Whatever our students' decisions about majors and careers, every one of them has something important to gain from adopting the practices that characterize a first-rate liberal education. And it's up to those who value liberal education to help them make that discovery.

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