Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Learning to Live with Professionalization

In his new book, The Marketplace of Ideas, Louis Menand -- Harvard English professor and New Yorker contributor -- confronts four of the most contentious issues in higher education in separate essays: core curriculum reform, the declining influence of humanities departments, interdisciplinarity, and the predominance of liberal political beliefs among professors. All are worth reading, even if they are rather obviously focused on the navel-gazing preoccupations of humanities types rather than the academic community generally. The first essay, on the creation of general education curriculum guidelines for all undergraduate students, was the most interesting.

Menand calls general education "the public face of liberal education," where universities attempt to distill some core beliefs about what it is to educate a college student down into core requirements for all students. Some of the most interesting parts of this essay involve the history of core curriculum development and the establishment of undergraduate education as a unique goal for colleges. One revolutionary change arrived when Charles William Eliot became president of Harvard in 1869. Prior to his tenure, students could enroll in Harvard's law and medical schools with few prerequisites, such as a BA. Eliot pushed through a new framework requiring undergraduate degrees for enrollment in these schools, which both professionalized advanced learning and emphasized a new philosophy of undergraduate education:
The collegiate ideal, [Eliot] explained in his Atlantic Monthly article, is "the enthusiastic study of subjects for the love of them without any ulterior objects." College is about knowledge for its own stake -- hence the free elective system, which let students roam across the curriculum without being shackled to the requirements of a major. And this is the system we have inherited: liberalization first, then professionalization. The two types of education are kept separate.
Today, I'm not so sure this is the case. Some of the recent statistics that Menand cites show a trend away from disinterested learning and toward vocational training. Consider the subjects bachelor's degrees are conferred in: business (22%), education (10%), and health sciences (7%). If engineering students are thrown in, close to half of all undergraduates degrees are already, to a great extent, "professionalized."

Despite being a liberal arts brat (and BA) myself, I don't see this as, prima facie, a bad thing. After all, leaders in every field rarely pass up a chance to remind us that the U.S. is in dire need of more engineers, nurses, and teachers. (Sorry marketing majors, we've already got plenty of you.) Popularity in these fields -- and universities' provision of the majors -- is really a response to technological change and demand for an increasingly professionalized workforce.

But at the same time, the huge shift away from the liberal arts and sciences betrays a lack of intellectual curiosity, a lack of self-confidence, or both. If it's the former, then most students no longer have passion for study without "ulterior objects." And if it's a lack of self-confidence we're seeing, it's manifested in smart students' fear that majoring in something non-professional will undermine their employment prospects or -- if they're really unsure of themselves -- their future productivity. Which is nonsense. The skills and intellectual abilities needed to succeed in the liberal arts (analytical writing, rigorous objective and subjective thought, comfort with abstraction) are necessary and often sufficient for success in all fields. Business majors in particular should read carefully: you can be a bright philosophy major and still become a successful businessperson after graduation.

Which brings us back to the core curriculum idea. Undergraduate cores are dominated by the liberal arts and sciences, which themselves house the suite of general knowledge that all so-called "educated" persons should know and also demand/bolster the reasoning skills most useful in private, professional, and citizen life. Louis Menand, who is an academic, seems to imply at various points in his book that liberal arts are really most useful for educating academics, the "producers of knowledge." (While Menand is intelligent enough to acknowledge the value of undergrads and non-academics, others are not so open-minded. Witness former Columbia provost Jonathan Cole's pitiful performance on Charlie Rose last night, where he all but scoffed at undergraduate education as being a valuable goal for universities.) But knowledge is also produced in vast quantities outside of academia, and therefore even the professionalized majors like education, nursing, and business should require the same liberal arts core as other concentrations. That way, these more specialized, vocational students can still develop abstract reasoning and quantitative skills that will allow them to innovate in their fields.

Speaking to Menand and Jonathan Cole, I would say, "Academics don't produce knowledge, smart people produce knowledge." Universities should be more than factories for producing new professors; they should equip all students with the intellectual self-confidence to handle any profession they might choose. Insofar as professionalized undergraduate programs exist, this muddies the message that mental abilities are more important than a specific stock of knowledge. Forcing these vocational programs to participate in the same liberal arts core as all other students would signal the latter's necessity to a purposeful undergraduate experience, and provide a major lift to the "public face" of higher education.

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