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A liberal arts degree need not leave graduates trapped in the ivory tower, in Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun’s potent phrase.

Traditionally, a liberal arts education was regarded as the inverse of professional, technical, or vocational training.  But the liberal arts can, of course, be practical, applied, and experiential.

Math and sociology students might help non-profits mine data sets and identify and analyze patterns and trends. History and political science students might provide essential background and context for and the possible implication of a project or policy decision. Archaeology and anthropology students might engage in artifact analysis and geophysical surveys or excavations or survey historical sites or an ethnography of a workplace.

Philosophy students might assess the ethical implications of particular policy choice or business decision. Language students might take part in translation projects, while biology students might analyze pollutants, waste management, and ecological disruption. Science students might distill technical research findings into more accessible language.

In other words, the analytical, ethical, and communication skills that define a liberal arts education can be applied to the real world challenges that lurk nearby.

The practical and applied liberal arts is an idea with a long pedigree.To take one example: In 1982, Bradford College in Haverhill, Massachusetts, now defunct, hired the then 33-year-old Arthur Levine as president, despite his lack of academic administrative experience. Levine, who would later become president of Teachers College and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, had a plan to give Bradford and its 500 students, a clear and distinctive identity. His answer: The Bradford Plan for a Practical Liberal Arts Education.

Toward the end of their first year, students engaged in an exercise called Freshman Inquiry. Under a faculty mentor’s supervision, each student drafted an essay “on their future plans and how they would use the college to accomplish them.”

The students then met with a panel consisting of a student, a faculty member, and an administrator to discuss the plan. In addition to completing Freshman Inquiry and an interdisciplinary major, Bradford students were required take a practical minor (for example, a minor involving scientific and technical writing), undertake a one-semester internship, and complete a senior capstone project.

Here at Hunter College, faculty are seeking to find a balance between a liberal and a more practical education by creating a series of certificate programs – which are shorter and more interdisciplinary than a minor and include a capstone experience, typically involving an internship or another experiential learning opportunity. These include certificate programs in arts management, business principles, and design.

Many defenses of the value of a liberal arts education tend to be fairly abstract: That it allows students to see beyond their own narrow parochial perspective, to base opinions on reason not emotion, and to free themselves from thoughtless bias and prejudice. Or, alternatively, that a liberal arts education provides skills highly valued by employers – communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking -- and prepares graduates not just for their first job but for subsequent jobs.

Certificate programs can offer another, and in my opinion, more powerful defense of a liberal arts education.

Certificate programs can open windows into the practical application of liberal arts skills. Such programs can also allow students to compile a portfolio of projects. By treating students not simply as recipients of knowledge but as do-ers, creators, and analysts, the applied, practical, and experiential liberal arts can help students refine their career goals, hone their skills, and make a genuine contribution in authentic, real-world contexts. 

Certificate programs, envisioned in this way, can make higher education something more than a matter of cognitive development.  Such programs can underscore the translational possibilities of the liberal arts.

Steven Mintz is Senior Advisor to the President of Hunter College for Strategic Initiatives and Student Success.

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