As institutions examine the challenges to the liberal arts, how do they respond? Are institutions that move in the direction of offering a more career- oriented curriculum abandoning the liberal arts? How might institutions stay true to the liberal arts while acknowledging the genuine needs of students to be career-ready?
In Liberal Arts at the Brink (Harvard University Press, 2011), Victor Ferrall makes the case for the value of the liberal arts: “The thesis here is simple. Society needs well and broadly educated citizens. The more liberally educated citizens it has, the stronger it will be. Individuals benefit from being well and broadly educated.“ (p.16)
Ferrall goes on to define the value of a liberal education and contrasts it with vocational training: “It is the nonvocational, non-career-based ‘uselessness’ of the subject matter that opens the door to appreciating knowing for the sake of knowing and that drives home the fact that learning is of value in and of itself, without regard to whether it is directly linked to a marketable skill.” (p. 18)
While I applaud the author’s praise for the liberal arts, I question why it is necessary to define the liberal arts in contrast to marketable skills. How can we defend providing an education that ignores marketable skills when our students are graduating with burdensome loans that require payment soon after graduation? Perhaps it is creating the contrast between the liberal arts and job skills that has led the liberal arts to the “brink.”
So, how should institutions adapt? Baker, Baldwin and Makker (Liberal Education, Summer, 2012) found that: “Some liberal arts colleges have transformed themselves into ‘research colleges’ in order to attract students and faculty who value the mission of the research university. Other institutions have become ‘professional colleges,’ implementing more academic programs in professional fields.”
While some institutional leaders might feel compelled to transform their approaches to education, there are alternatives that do not involve a departure from liberal learning. One such example can be found at Fairfield University, a Jesuit university in Fairfield, Conn, where I served as an administrator from 2006 to 2012. Fairfield is a comprehensive university that offers a choice of liberal arts and pre-professional (business, nursing, education, and engineering). Despite the pressures that many students feel to prepare themselves for a job, a majority still major in the College of Arts and Sciences. To support students majoring in the liberal arts, Fairfield has developed a program called “From Classroom to Career” that utilizes a website and the advising system to introduce students to opportunities that link their liberal arts studies to career options. Dean Robbin Crabtree of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University explains that the initiative establishes the liberal arts as the foundation for the career. It helps faculty communicate to students the relationship of the Fairfield’s core curriculum and their majors to a wide range of potential careers.
Here are some examples of advice from the website that, when combined with advising and constructing electronic portfolios, encourage students to look out from the classroom to their careers:
- In their first year, students are encouraged to attend campus lectures, join student organizations, and learn how to use the library as ways to explore their academic and career interests. First year students are also directed to plan how upcoming summer jobs and study abroad opportunities fit in with their four-year plan, which can be tracked in students’ electronic portfolios.
- As sophomores, students are asked to consider how they might serve as leaders in their student organizations. They are introduced to the value of service learning courses (which Mash Up identifies as an excellent example of blending the liberal arts and professional education) and they are urged to begin working with career planning professionals.
- In their junior year, students are encouraged to link their study abroad experiences to career possibilities and to look for ways to apply what they have learned in civic engagement opportunities. They are offered the opportunity to network with alumni and to shadow alumni in prospective careers. Pursuing these and other opportunities are consistent with both the goals of a liberal education and determining a career path.
- By the time students reach their senior year they are encouraged to tie together their four-year plan, often in a capstone project or some other form of what the Jesuits call “discernment.” Given the range of the Classroom to Career projects, Fairfield’s graduates have completed a liberal arts core curriculum, a liberal arts major, and participated in activities and reflection that prepare them for the next steps in their lives.
Many departments at Fairfield University have taken the Classroom to Career initiative a step further. For example, the English Department web site parallels the four-year approach of the initiative with specific activities related to an English major such as work on “what to do with an English degree,” defining one’s “dream job,” internships, capstone courses, and more.
Dean Crabtree describes how the initiative empowers students: “We want student to have confidence in the value of the liberal arts education and to be able to tell their future employers how it prepared them for their jobs. Our faculty and alumni know this is true, but for this initiative to be successful, we need students to be proficient in telling this story.”
There are many other liberal arts institutions that are devising ways to maintain their identities yet respond to the real and urgent needs that students have to link their college experiences to jobs and careers. The initiative at Fairfield University demonstrates one way to attract and retain students to pursue the liberal arts because it demonstrates how liberal learning does respond to their needs.
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