Just after 7 p.m. on July 17, 1981, two elevated walkways at Kansas City’s Hyatt hotel gave way and fell to the atrium below, where hundreds of guests were enjoying a tea dance. The disaster killed 114, injured another 219 and left trauma that hasn’t faded.
Apart from the 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, this was the worst engineering failure in the United States in U.S. history, even worse than the 2021 collapse of the Surfside, Fla., condominium tower, which left 98 dead. It was also the deadliest structural disaster in the United States before the fall of New York’s Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
Even though an investigation showed that the walkways’ original design did not meet Kansas City building code standards and that a later design change further contributed to the collapse, no one was ever held criminally liable for the disaster. In fact, 10 months earlier, in October 1979, four 18-foot steel beams (one weighing 12 tons) fell during construction. But because that structural failure took place at 6 a.m. on a Sunday and no one was injured, this failure didn’t receive much attention at the time.
The Kansas City hotel disaster raises questions about professional responsibility and ethics that every student who plans to enter a profession needs to grapple with. Engineering, of course, raises distinctive issues involving design, fabrication, construction and inspection—but negligence, professional incompetence, dereliction of duty, oversight and corner-cutting occur in every profession. According to some estimates, medical error—involving misdiagnosis, medication mistakes, surgical errors and preventable infections—is the third leading cause of death in the United States.
It is imperative, in my view, that every pre-professional pathway include a dedicated humanistic dimension.
It pains me to say this, but if you ask my students, most of whom aspire to enter a profession after graduation, they’ll tell you that their gen ed courses, especially those in the humanities, are a waste of time, a box-checking exercise, repetitive of the courses they took in high school.
Most would prefer to take courses exclusively in their major.
My undergraduates may be more career-focused than yours. The overwhelming majority want to major in business, engineering, health care or technology. Everything else is, in their view, a diversion.
I think we should listen to those student complaints. That won’t require us to jettison the ideal of a well-rounded liberal education. But it does mean that we need to rethink how we accomplish that goal.
I believe a compelling answer lies in the idea of more coherent, well-structured pre-professional pathways that consist of integrated and synergistic courses and other learning experiences that emphasize professional identity formation. That’s precisely what the University of Texas system’s Institute for Transformational Learning tried to do when it created a “middle school to medical school” pathway in the biomedical sciences at UT Rio Grande Valley, with support from the Teagle Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. That idea, I am convinced, can and should be extended to other undergraduate pre-professional paths.
A model, the health humanities, already exists at a growing number of institutions. This is an interdisciplinary field that draws upon ethics, history, literature and the arts to understand the human dimensions of health care beyond the biology of disease. Its goal is to make medical care more holistic, empathetic and patient-centered.
To improve patient care, the health humanities helps practitioners become more attentive to patients’ experiences and needs and to be better able to interpret the narratives and concerns that patients voice. This field also seeks to help health-care providers understand illness within its sociocultural context, including how race, gender, socioeconomic class and cultural beliefs can influence health. In addition, this field seeks to help providers articulate, process and cope with the stresses and emotions that they experience and understand the ethical and policy dimensions of health care.
Other pre-professional pathways, including those in business and finance, consulting, law, and technology, need something similar.
Competent, experienced professionals offer something much more than technical skills, specialized knowledge and advanced education. Professions, unlike other jobs, are typically governed by codes of conduct that emphasize accountability, competence, integrity and a commitment to the public good. Colleges and universities, in my opinion, need to make professional identity formation an integral part of the pre-professional pathway. A first step is ensuring that majors can demonstrate an understanding of the moral and ethical aspects of their role.
Practicing professionals should also be familiar with their profession’s history. The history of every profession is complex and has an ugly, uncomfortable and unsavory side. Only by confronting historic failures, inequities and injustices can future professionals avoid the mistakes of the past.
In addition to possessing a special set of knowledge and skills and a unique duty of care, they have a responsibility to the public. Thus, a lawyer is not only a client’s advocate and protector of the client’s rights, but an officer in the legal system with a duty to promote the cause of justice. It is essential that those who aspire to enter a profession have thought deeply about professional ethics and responsibilities.
Professionals have clients or patients, not customers or consumers. Thus, it is essential that they master the interpersonal side of professional practice. That requires effective professionals to be able to listen closely to what a client says, understand where the client is coming from and demonstrate compassion. That requires contextual understanding and an ability to act and communicate in ways that are culturally sensitive and respectful socially.
Professionals must also develop coping mechanisms that will help them deal with the stresses that come with their role and responsibilities. The humanities can help professionals, irrespective of their field, to be able to process their emotions and articulate their feelings in ways that can reduce the risks of burnout.
Professionals ought to be able to approach their role holistically. Much as health-care professionals must not reduce patients to specific physical symptoms but treat the whole person, so, too, an attorney must be attentive to a client’s background, emotions, attitudes and context. Technologists must not only become familiar with ethical, legal and privacy issues, but with aesthetics and human-machine interaction. The humanities can provide an essential counterbalance to the temptation to treat business solely as a matter of economics, engineering as a question of design, health care as a matter of biology or physiology, and law or technology as a problem-solving exercise.
In addition to integrating the humanities into pre-professional pathways, we need to take other steps to produce well-rounded, liberally educated professionals.
- Make career education a priority. Follow Guttman Community College’s example and insert something like an ethnography of work component into these pre-professional majors. Practicing professionals can help students understand what professional life is actually like and the ethically charged decisions that working professionals must make.
- Create a mentorship program. Ask experienced professionals to serve as mentors who will help majors navigate their path into their future career. Also, host guest lectures and create networking events.
- Expand internships and clinical experiences. Give students the opportunity to obtain hands-on experience and develop professional skills in authentic professional settings. This is also a great way for undergraduates to begin to build their professional networks.
- Create pre-professional centers. These centers can provide a safe space where students can receive career counseling, find support and share their experiences.
Don’t think about professional identity formation narrowly. Many undergraduates aspire to become public policy professionals or performing or visual arts professionals. Create integrated pre-professional pathways for those students, too.
I know firsthand how difficult it is to shift from our current curricular model, consisting of stand-alone departments, toward a pathway approach. I’m sure you remember the controversy that arose in 2018 when the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point proposed eliminating six humanities departments, including English, French, German, philosophy and history, to address budget deficits and a sharp drop in enrollment and replace these with career-focused majors.
Let me assure you: that’s not at all what I have in mind. My goal is to fully integrate and embed the humanities into pre-professional pathways. I view this as one of the most realistic and practical ways to promote a humanities renaissance.
The humanities and the professions should be allies, not adversaries. There was a time, not so long ago, when a broad liberal arts education was, in fact, the entryway into the professions. So let us channel our inner Abraham Lincoln and say this to our business and STEM colleagues:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”