Liberal Education

Liberal Education & Professionals

Back in 1722, when Benjamin Franklin was a somewhat naughty young man still living in Boston, Franklin wrote a series of satirical letters to the New England Courant under the pen name Silence Dogood. In one of these letters, he made fun of Harvard College, which he called "The Temple of Theology," and which, then as now, appeared to Bostonians of modest backgrounds to be a snooty and superior institution.

I reflected in my Mind on the extream Folly of those Parents, who, blind to their Childrens Dulnes, and insensible of the Solidity of their Skulls, because they think their Purses can afford it, will needs send them to the Temple of Learning, where for want of a suitable Genius, they learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a Room genteely, (which might as well be acquir'd at a Dancing-School,) and from whence they return, after an Abundance of Trouble and Charge, as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.

Many years later, after he had moved to the less class-bound city of Philadelphia in search of opportunity and had, over time, become its leading citizen, Franklin made it one of his many projects to help found an academy that later became the University of Pennsylvania. It wasn't so much that he had abandoned his earlier skepticism about universities as that he had in mind a different, and to his mind better, kind of university than the hated Harvard. Franklin's university would be practical: It would teach younger versions of himself the skills they needed to become active citizens and independent business proprietors. "As to their STUDIES," he wrote, "it would be well if they could be taught every Thing that is useful, and every Thing that is ornamental. But Art is long, and their Time is short. It is therefore propos'd that they learn those things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental." Note that Franklin put useful ahead of ornamental, and didn't mention theology at all.

Today American universities are still much made fun of, but they are also, arguably, this society's most successful type of institution. The United States invented mass higher education, an idea that an initially skeptical world has substantially accepted, and we now have many more universities and many more university students than any other nation. Our universities aren't just a model for the world, they are more specifically a magnet for the world. The demand on the part of non-Americans to come here and attend American universities overwhelmingly exceeds the supply of places for them.

Multiplicity and unclarity

As in most cases of institutional success, American universities have benefited from conceptual unclarity: they are many things to many people. Lots of university stakeholders interact with them primarily as loci of big-time sports competition and raucous social life, things that have nothing to do with their pedagogical purpose--and yet those stakeholders are deeply, undyingly loyal and generous. For another group of stakeholders, people on the inside, universities lay on a set of ceremonies, rituals, and occasions that, to a newcomer to academe like me, is quite striking in its magnitude.

Even within the realm of their central educational mission, American universities cover a lot of bases. There is what might be called the Benjamin Franklin aspect of universities, the useful-knowledge side, which is an enormous, perhaps even the dominant, element in American higher education today. The Morrill Act of 1862, which created the land-grant universities, was the single most important American innovation in higher education: From it has flowed most of the American university system, which, in Franklin's spirit, teaches economically useful skills to its students.

And this country is also the world's leading home of the small liberal arts college, an institution that usually began with, and often still has, a religious affiliation, and that is primarily focused on small-classroom teaching of a liberal-arts curriculum.

And then, finally, there is the major research university--an educational type that is, again, probably more numerous in the United States than any other country. What strikes me most immediately about universities, or at least my university, Columbia, is how "German" they are--that is, how much everything seems to descend from another of the landmark events in American higher education, the founding of Johns Hopkins as the first full-fledged modern American research university. The power center of the research university is the tenured faculty. Its core activity is publishing. Its most important students are graduate students who are scholars-in-training themselves. Much of the institutional energy of the university goes into seeking to make itself home to as much distinguished and renowned research as possible

To make matters even more complicated, all these different types of institutions in American higher education by now contain elements adapted from each other. The land-grant colleges teach the liberal arts and have tenured faculty; the liberal arts colleges very often offer practical, business-oriented courses; the research universities have colleges as well as graduate schools. Somehow it all works, but the price we as educators pay for the generally advantageous multiplicity and unclarity of our functions is that we are not always able to state simply and directly what we're doing.

Professional schools and liberal education

Yet another of American higher education's conceptually unclear success stories are professional schools--the part of higher education where I'm now working. One could argue that Ben Franklin's hated early eighteenth-century Harvard was a professional school--a divinity school--and yet it came across to Franklin as airy and impractical. The ancient and honorable professions of law, medicine, and divinity all pride themselves on having their roots in a tradition of pure, unworldly study. But just about all professional schools today--certainly law and medical schools--operate in an atmosphere of intense concern about job prospects and relations with an industry, and increasingly their graduates wind up working in large organizations that are run like business corporations.

At first blush, it might seem that professional schools, especially those that prepare students for life in quasi-commercial fields, might feel uncomfortable in liberal universities. It might even be useful to ask, for purposes of clarifying our thinking on the subject, why professional schools belong in the realm of liberal education at all, rather than, let's say, being free-standing institutions operated by the industries they supply with personnel, not by universities.

Before we get to this question, we should probably spend just a minute on definitions: With both "liberal education" and "profession," we're back in the realm of conceptual unclarity: They are both shaggy, capacious labels that are hung on many disparate things. For our purposes right now, what do they mean?

Liberal education is best defined with its most literal meaning: It is education that liberates, that frees the mind from the constraints of a particular moment and set of circumstances, that permits one to see possibilities that are not immediately apparent, to understand things in a larger context, to think about situations conceptually and analytically, to draw upon a base of master knowledge when faced with specific situations. The essential paradox, or one might even say the miracle of liberal education, is that by being evidently impractical, it equips a student for life far more richly and completely, and across a far wider expanse of time and space, than does education whose sole aim is to be useful.

As for a profession, probably the simplest definition--and one that supports locating professional schools in universities--is a field of endeavor whose practitioners have a collective idea of the good in their work that does not overlap exactly with the self-interest of either themselves or their employers. Professionals have goals and ideals and purposes having to do with the history, the techniques, and the social role of their field, which rise above the daily demands of work. They are in discourse with each other about matters broader than just the completion of the work assignment at hand. Professionals have to deal with complexity in their work. Professionals do work that has a public purpose. I don't think I'm defining a profession tendentiously--but the exercise of defining it does make it clear that there is, or should be, a big difference between job training and professional education. The reason that liberal education and professions make for a potentially good fit is because they have crucially in common a transcendent quality, a commitment to a broad and not necessarily utilitarian perspective.

This is not to say that in professional education, one is entitled to declare victory merely by virtue of embracing liberal education--to declare that, for example, reading Aristotle and Plato makes one a lawyer. Fitting the professional school into the university is a more interesting, complicated, and challenging problem than that. But addressing it starts with the idea that in professional education, a series of propositions that might, to members of the profession, at first appear to make perfect sense, actually don't.

Let's go back to my earlier question and imagine what professional schools might look like if they did not reside in universities. They would probably concentrate on training their students in the skills they will need right away as they start their careers. Their faculties would be made up of full-time classroom teachers who don't do anything else. Their curricula would be determined by consulting the industry and assessing its immediate personnel needs. Their stance toward the industry would be one of encouragement, even celebration, and defense of its interests.

Successful professional schools at liberal universities violate, to some extent, all of the propositions I've just offered. They tend not to target the initial phase of a career in their education, but, instead, the whole career--and they spend what would seem to be an irrational amount of time on top-level problems in the profession that many of their students may never personally encounter. Law students think about life in the appellate judiciary more than might seem rational; architecture students design new cities. In university professional schools, senior faculty are actively engaged in research and scholarship as well as teaching, even though that can reduce the time they have available for teaching. Professional school curricula contain elements that don't seem to relate directly to professional practice, such as the study of the theoretical underpinnings and history of the field. And professional schools have a complicated relationship to their industries, with elements of prodding, preaching, and criticism. A professional school will often try to push its industry in a certain direction, rather than simply act as a part of the industry.

What I'm trying to do here is lay out an argument as to why professional schools in universities don't "make sense." And I think the argument that they don't make sense actually does make some sense. As a dean, I actually hear the argument all the time, not in the form I've just given you, but in the form of urgings to operate our school in the logical, non-university manner, rather than in the illogical university manner. So why do professional schools, as annoying as they often are to the employers they're supplying, reside in universities, instead of in industry?

Part of the answer is that operating a school is difficult and complicated, so much so as to be insuperable to profit-making businesses with other primary concerns. Another part is that businesses want to hire the very best people they can find, and they believe that universities have charms that enable them to attract a better quality of student than a pure industry trade school would be able to do. Also, over time, if any professional school begins to be regarded as a beloved alma mater by people at the top level of the profession, its worth becomes an easy sell, even if its alumni don't approve of all its specific activities.

Now let's ask ourselves the opposite question: What are liberal universities doing operating professional schools, which might at first blush seem to them unpardonably practical--the obverse of the way Harvard seemed to Ben Franklin back in 1722? What's in it for the university?

I suppose the less high-minded reasons are that at least some forms of professional education are financially attractive, and that professional schools make universities feel more influential and connected to the world--to use an awful word, relevant. But let's make the case idealistically. If you believe in the project of liberal education, then professional schools provide a real opportunity to extend its benefits outward, across the leadership ranks of society, and to demonstrate its utility in realms other than pure research. I'm not making a daring assertion here: The value of liberal education of professionals is a long-settled matter, both in the universities and in the professions. But because I am working in a field, journalism, where the value of professional education has by no means been fully accepted either by universities or by the profession itself, I find myself having to make the fundamental case much more often than most of my fellow professional school deans do. I'll make it again, briefly, now.

Professional school of journalism

Obviously not all fields of endeavor are equally suited to reap the benefits of liberal education. That a job category exists in the economy, or even that it is influential and remunerative, does not automatically mean it should be taught in universities. I would propose three basic tests that an area of professional education ought to meet to justify its place in the liberal university.

First, can the university teach future members of the profession things that they will find useful and enriching across their long years of professional practice, but that they would have a hard time acquiring just by working for a few years in the field? Any profession's history, and any deep, distanced reflection on its social role and its relation to other professions and institutions, is almost impossible to pick up on the job, and so are a lot of technical skills that originate in other disciplines, such as statistics; universities are much better than workplaces at being repositories and conveyors of that kind of material. It isn't enough, of course, merely for such material to exist in relation to a profession; the professional school also has to teach it, or it is not really taking advantage of its university location. A professional school should not strive to be a miniature-in-entire of the professional workplace itself; rather, it should teach what the profession cannot. That is likely to be "liberal" material, meaning material that induces long-term understanding, reflection--even wisdom. So it fits with the overall mission of the university.

Second, can the professional school develop its own version of the liberal university's research faculty? Early-stage professional education is usually conducted by retired and part-time professionals, but the strength and power of the university lies in its being home to faculty members who are leaders in their fields and who spend the most productive years of their careers at the university. What this means is that professional schools, as they evolve, will become home to a certain type of excellence in their professions, not general-purpose excellence. A professor of jurisprudence probably wouldn't be very good at running a large international law firm, and vice versa; but the people in both jobs are generally considered to be at the top of the legal profession, in their quite different ways. Professional school faculties should be made up primarily of active members of the profession--not former members or academics from other fields--who make major contributions to the profession in the form of work they do as faculty members. This not only represents a pleasing combining of the university and the profession, it gives the professional school a heft, an importance, within both the university and the profession, that it cannot achieve otherwise.

Third, can the professional school develop a complicated relationship to its profession, rather than functioning simply as an arm of the profession? It should be a creator and upholder of standards for professional conduct that may seem unrealistic to practitioners who are caught up in the pressures of daily work in the field. It should inculcate in its students an ethos that doesn't always make for a perfect fit with the quest for professional success, while also, paradoxically, equipping them to become professionally successful. It should use its special position of protection from economic pressure to push outward the boundaries of what it is possible for the profession to accomplish--as, for example, medical researchers do. It should be a convener, an exhorter, an encourager, sometimes a bit of a nag, and a contemplator of the profession's conduct, its ethical standards, its aspirations, and its proper place in society. A professional school is different, in other words, from a trade association in its function within the profession, just as a university is different from a training center in its function within society.

These tests are mutually reinforcing. A first-rate professional school in a liberal university must meet all three of them at once in order to meet any one of them truly successfully. It would be impossible to have an intellectually challenging curriculum without an outstanding faculty to devise and teach it. It would be impossible to attract a first-rate faculty without offering its members the freedom to do advanced professional work. It would be impossible to act as a meaningful force for good within the profession without having a faculty and curriculum that command respect.

A professional school that meets these three tests will represent a deep, productive, thought-through, worked-out compromise between the university and the profession--a true synthesis. The resulting institution will therefore exist in a state of perpetual (one would hope creative, but inevitably also sometimes tense) equipoise between its university and its profession. There will be ways in which the school will appear to either side not to make sense: To use Benjamin Franklin's language, it will seem, to the university, too useful, and, to the profession, too ornamental. This inherent tension is not a source of weakness for a professional school. It is a life-giving force, and it shouldn't be obscured under a lot of bland, unobjectionable rhetoric about the school's purpose. It is through relentlessly exploring the somewhat charged zone between the liberal university and the practical profession that a great professional school achieves its maximum value and effect, not just on the university and the profession, but on society as a whole. Done right, professional education can, quite literally, change the world.


Nicholas Lemann is Henry R. Luce professor and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University


To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author's name on the subject line.

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