From New York Times Magazine.
Ostensibly a profile of Andy Chan, Wake Forest’s VP for “Personal and Career Development,” this article suggests a conversation about the role of career services in the context of liberal arts education. On the one side is the idea that pairing vigorous career services with liberal arts has three results: 1) students DO major in liberal arts subjects, 2) they get jobs, 3) donors (especially parents) love it. On the other is the concern that “[i]t reduces an education to the marketplace.” The comments on the article make for interesting reading.
How to Get a Job With a Philosophy Degree
By SUSAN DOMINUS
Published: September 13, 2013
On a Friday in late August, parents of freshmen starting at Wake Forest University, a small, prestigious liberal-arts school in Winston-Salem, N.C., attended orientation sessions that coached them on how to separate, discouraged them from contacting their children’s professors and assured them about student safety. Finally, as their portion of orientation drew to a close, the parents joined their students in learning the school song and then were instructed to form a huge ring around the collective freshman class, in a show of support.
For years, most liberal-arts schools seemed to put career-services offices “somewhere just below parking” as a matter of administrative priority, in the words of Wake Forest’s president, Nathan Hatch. But increasingly, even elite, decidedly non-career-oriented schools are starting to promote their career services during the freshman year, in response to fears about the economy, an ongoing discussion about college accountability and, in no small part, the concerns of parents, many of whom want to ensure a return on their exorbitant investment.
Website of the Office of Career and Personal Development at Wake Forest
“Liberal Arts Education” as a concept is unfortunately dominated by its own legacy.
When most of us think about the liberal arts our thoughts tend to look backwards. Some of us fondly recall our own liberal arts educations and the value we perceive it to have had for us. Or we think about what we’ve been teaching for years and years. Or we hearken back to the invention of the modern liberal arts in the late nineteenth century or to the classical liberal arts of the middle ages.
If you listen carefully, you can almost hear us thinking, “If it was good enough then, it’s good enough now…”
But it’s easy to miss something important. To understand what a liberal arts education is we should not simply look at the lists in the course catalogs of bygone eras. Instead we should look functionally at how those lists fit into their time. Generically, what the liberal arts are is a collection of intellectual disciplines that are appropriate to the training of generalists in their time, of subjects, the mastery of which provides a foundation, a launching platform, for the leaders of an age.
I think that, often, both those who feel an imperative to discard the liberal arts and those who feel the imperative to preserve them come at the question with the wrong idea.
A higher education system that well serves the society that supports it will have a diverse array of parts. Some parts need to be tuned to producing experts at delivering current practice in the professions. Some parts need to be highly specialized, training people to be experts at producing the things of today and solving immediate problems to create the things of tomorrow. And some parts need to prepare people to solve the problems we don’t yet know that we have. And we need to train people who can move back and forth among the various experts, who can consolidate their work into emergent solutions for emerging problems. And we need people who have broad capacities to examine and understand the very system in which all the above perform. And some parts of it train people broadly prior to their becoming one of those specialists so that the narrowness of their training does not become a liability.
The mistake that the discarders make is to see the importance of the practically trained and the expertly trained as telling us that we do not need the more generally trained.
The mistake of the defenders is to think that yesterday will always tell us how to train those generalists of tomorrow.
Our challenge as educators is to look forward to figure out what the liberal arts for the 21st century should look like. It’s not an easy task, to be sure. But the first right step to take is to be sure we are facing in the correct direction.