False Dichotomies

Over the last few weeks, I have been in several conversations about the impact of career focused education on the liberal arts. Some conversations focus on tradition (we’ve always taught this), which neglects the ways in which disciplines and departments have evolved over the last two centuries (we haven’t always taught this). Others suggest that professionally oriented majors lack flexibility in a changeable world of work, ignoring that fact that, with the exception of students who enroll in certificate programs only, our career focused degrees are part of a liberal arts program. Finally, there is an argument that prioritizing career focused educational pathways creates a kind of caste system in higher education, with access to the benefits of a liberal arts education being preserved for the lucky few at more elite universities. This framing reveals deeply held biases about what qualifies as liberal arts (and therefore a quality degree) which are pervasive in higher education.

Let’s start with the obvious: Liberal Arts education offers an important path to lifelong learning. Foundations in writing, speaking, and quantitative reasoning are necessary to navigate the worlds in which we live. Indeed, the digital realities we all navigate require clear and effective communication more than ever before. It is not enough for college graduates to know how to write clear sentences and to decode reports of trends that are presented in mathematical forms. They must now have a rich understanding of how rhetoric works, in writing, speaking, and in visual forms, so they can defend themselves from the faulty arguments that surround many important decisions.

Beyond these foundations, it is imperative that our students have at least a basic grasp of how different disciplines define truth. Students need to understand the tentative nature of truth – tied to the moment and destined to change. They need to understand that artists, historians, social scientists, and physicists all arrive at truth (or facts) in different ways. The understanding of these ways of knowing offers ways to resist misinformation and fanaticism. The need for this kind of learning is why our degrees (two- and four-year) have some number of courses devoted to general education. This is where we learn that different disciplines see the world differently. This is how all students are introduced to habits of mind that the liberal arts can bring.

After general education, we guide our students into majors, trying to match them with subjects that let them build greater insight into a specific perspective. We are agnostic about this, recognizing that most people change careers numerous times, by plan or by fate, and the ability to think clearly, do some research, and be flexible when approaching new problems or ideas are the most important outcomes of any major. We urge our students to find the right fit for them and enjoy it, because we know that deeper learning comes from a passion for a discipline. We know that whatever that fit is, it will help our students build their lives after they graduate.

All of this is to say that yes, degrees should be grounded in the liberal arts. Yes, we should be careful not to reduce our programs to just the professional pathways. However, the suggestion that universities and colleges engaging in promoting career pathways, certificates, short programs, etc., are undermining liberal arts education, reveals a very narrow vision of what a well-rounded liberal arts education includes.

Let me be clear. Elite schools are not ignoring these short-term credentials. Every day in my news feeds I see ads for digital media certificates and coding boot camps and executive format certificates in leadership, management, and so on. These ads are from elite universities, including UCONN (our flagship university in CT), Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, etc. These universities either see these as complementary to the degrees they are offering, or they may see them as alternate revenue streams. Either way, they do not seem to suggest that the offering of such opportunities is somehow oppositional to a quality, liberal arts education.

Such programs might also provide important opportunities to students at community colleges and regional, access-oriented, comprehensive universities. Offering short-term, stackable credentials can give students earning power while they are pursuing their undergraduate degrees. Since so many students need to work while they are studying, these opportunities might make that work more interesting or at least more lucrative. Short, focused credentials or certificates can also enhance those very liberal arts majors that we care so deeply about. Weaving these kinds of things into our offerings might help our students see the path from a literature or communication or biology degree to any number of careers. These are opportunities to connect the dots and explore the ways that any degree can lead to interesting career trajectories.

In addition to the concerns about certificates and such, there is a persistent framing of programs like business, health care, or technology focused degrees as somehow lesser than more traditional liberal arts disciplines (history, philosophy, or literature, for example). If you look at the curriculum in our professionally oriented programs you will see that they are all grounded in the liberal arts, rely on the thinking that our general education curriculum introduces, and apply those very skills and habits of mind to specific contexts. Not only do our Justice and Law Administration majors take introductory courses in Political Science and Psychology, but they also take those ideas to the many contexts of the criminal justice system. Students in Social Work are applying concepts introduced in Anthropology and Sociology to their work, bringing them to life in professional settings. And our health care students rely on foundations in Social Sciences, Biology, and Communication to build an understanding about the differences between health information and the social structures that shape how healthcare is perceived and received.

In other words, professional programs are the applications of the ideas introduced in our foundational liberal arts courses. Those foundations are not going away, even as the majors we offer change and evolve. Our professional programs are satisfying the interests and career aspirations of our students, while still helping them develop the habits of mind that support lifelong learning. Suggesting that these are lesser experiences devalues the work of these applied disciplines and the interests and ambitions of our students. It also fails to recognize that the degrees and certificates that are more clearly linked to a career are extensions of the ideas learned in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM disciplines. They aren’t separate; they are liberal arts in context.

So, I agree that liberal arts degrees matter. Certificates or narrowly focused career programs should be part of a building block to the broader liberal arts degree. If some people need to stop there at first, for whatever reason, it is up to us to make the path to the liberal arts degrees clear and easy to follow when the time is right. But framing career focused education as separate from or lesser than the liberal arts is not a productive position at all.

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