From the Liberal to the Practical Arts in American Colleges and Universities: Organizational Analysis and Curricular Change

By Brint, Steven; Riddle, Mark et al. | Journal of Higher Education, March-April 2005 | Go to article overview

From the Liberal to the Practical Arts in American Colleges and Universities: Organizational Analysis and Curricular Change


Brint, Steven, Riddle, Mark, Turk-Bicakci, Lori, Levy, Charles S., Journal of Higher Education


One of the most important changes in American higher education over the last 30 years has been the gradual shrinking of the old arts and sciences core of undergraduate education and the expansion of occupational and professional programs. Occupational fields have accounted for approximately 60% of bachelors' degrees in recent years, up from 45% in the 1960s, and hundreds of institutions now award 80% or more of their degrees in these fields (Brint, 2001)

The arts and sciences originated historically for the pursuit of knowledge "for its own sake" and, simultaneously, as the educational foundation for youths preparing to occupy positions of power and influence in society. They include the basic fields of science and scholarship, such as chemistry, economics, history, literature, mathematics, philosophy, and political science. By contrast, programs in occupational fields are designed to educate students for jobs--in business, education, engineering, nursing, public administration, and many others. These applied programs are often housed in their own professional schools or colleges distinct from colleges of arts and sciences. In this paper, we will sometimes refer to these programs collectively as the "practical arts," a term we consider an apposite contrast to the familiar term "liberal arts." For the most part, however, we will use the more conventional term "occupational-professional" programs.

This paper is not intended as a critique of occupational-professional education in American colleges and universities. Indeed, many writers, including Jencks and Riesman (1968) and Clark (1983), have argued that a key strength of American higher education has been its receptivity to practical training, beginning well before the original Morrill Act (Geiger, 1998), but of course stimulated greatly by the land grant commitments of the federal government. It is worth noting in this context that most educational systems in the industrialized world are much less focused on the arts and sciences than the American system. The French and Swedish, for example, extend vocational tracks from secondary to higher education. Countries like Germany in which arts and sciences predominate are able to maintain this focus primarily because of the early differentiation of primary and secondary schooling into vocational and academic tracks (Allmendinger, 1986). Nor do most European countries have general education requirements at all in the undergraduate curriculum. The Continental pattern is to channel students directly into specialized study in a discipline. (2)

At the same time, there can be little doubt that the conflict between market-based utilitarianism and the liberal arts tradition of education for understanding and democratic citizenship has been an important touchstone in the American context. Decisive shifts in one direction or the other have often been interpreted as indicators of the state of relations between the great forces of the market and cultural idealism among American elites. Even today, advocates of the arts and sciences frequently argue that the basic disciplines are superior sources of study for broadening the horizons of undergraduates (Geiger, 1980; Shapiro, 1997) and for developing skills in analysis, written and oral communication, and critical thinking (Bowen & Bok, 1998: 209-216). These views are supported by findings of sharp declines in self-reported gains among American college students in the 1990s as compared to college students in the late 1960s in awareness of different philosophies and cultures; in understanding and appreciation of science, literature and the arts; and in personal development when compared to American college students from the late 1960s (Kuh, 1999). A significant portion of these declines can be attributed to lower levels of course taking in arts and sciences fields (Adelman, 1995).

In this paper, we will try to answer two key questions about this rise of the practical arts in American four-year colleges and universities. …

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