Magazine article Liberal Education

PRESIDENT'S MESSAGE: Liberal Education and the Professions

Magazine article Liberal Education

PRESIDENT'S MESSAGE: Liberal Education and the Professions

Article excerpt

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 twentiethcentury 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 os a Nation Goes to Coilege, 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 arc 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 liheral education is for students to take a substantial number of courses clearly labeled "arts and sciences. …

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