Liberal Ideals and Professional Aims in American Higher Education: Arguments Based on Western Philosophers' Views

By Xu, Wei | International Journal of Education, October 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Liberal Ideals and Professional Aims in American Higher Education: Arguments Based on Western Philosophers' Views


Xu, Wei, International Journal of Education


Abstract

Different western philosophers argued for the aims of education, especially higher education, with a focus on either its liberal ideals or professional aims, or both. Their philosophical views reflect the respective rationality of liberal education and vocational preparation in American higher education. To meet the diverse demands of labor market in such an economically and politically changeable world, it is, thus, reasonable to integrate programs in career and technical fields with those in liberal arts fields without losing the goal of general education - cultivating the mind and perfecting the intellect, ultimately reaching the development of the whole person.

Keywords: Higher education, Liberal education, Vocational preparation

1. Introduction

Historically, "liberal education" has taken an eminent place in higher education of many countries. Most universities require their undergraduates, in pursuit of breadth of knowledge and understanding about the world in which they live, to complete certain liberal education in such core areas as mathematics, social studies, humanities and natural sciences.

However, as a result of industrialization in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the preparation of middle class professionals was required of higher education to face the challenges of the marketplace. With the recent changes in the economy since the 1980's, and with the emergence of informational, global, and networked society, higher education was further challenged, turning to the more pragmatic, professional, and career-training dimension. Consequently, college curricula have become excessively work-related to meet the demands of a high skill, competitive science, and business management, and have been designed to prepare the undergraduates for specific jobs.

Therefore, higher education has been pushed to confront the challenges brought about by the importance of professional training and the influence of the marketplace on liberal education. An important issue raised here is how to take account of both the value of liberal education and the prominence of vocational preparation in the new millennium and attach to each its due weight in higher education.

With regard to the purpose of higher education, there always exists the conflict between liberal education and vocational preparation, which have long been considered as two distinct tendencies in education. When education is getting more closely tied to the economy, calls for vocationalisation of education always become more strident. This article traces the philosophical bases for both literal education and vocational preparation, and explores philosophers' opinions on the relationship between the liberal ideals and professional aims in higher education. With this, a better understanding is expected of the aim of higher education in this changing world. Moreover, on the basis of an enquiry into the issue of the increasing instability of liberal education and the upgrading vocational factor in higher education, a clear idea can be formed about whether vocational preparation conflicts with liberal education, and whether a balance can be kept as to the proper proportion of liberal education and vocational preparation to meet the diverse needs of the increasing number of students in higher education today.

2. Philosophical Arguments for Liberal Education

A philosophical lens is an important foundation for understanding our higher education today. Christopher Dawson pointed out, "The tradition of liberal education in Western culture is practically as old as the Confusion in China and has played a similar part in forming the mind and maintaining the continuity of our civilization" (1965, p. 11). The practice of liberal education in American higher education must trace back to the arguments for education by ancient Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. And, possible conflicts between liberal and vocational education can trace back to the different perspectives taken by these philosophers and the different understanding of educational aims by their opposites. …

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