College Admissions 2004 October 2004

The Third Way

Liberal arts or a professional education? More and more students are choosing to combine elements of both. A leading proponent describes the emerging trend he calls "practice-oriented education"

Liberal education and professional education have traditionally been considered opposites. According to received academic wisdom, students seeking broad exposure to the arts and sciences should not be burdened with acquiring workplace skills, and students preparing for careers in fields such as business and engineering should not be diverted by more than a token engagement with "irrelevant" liberal arts content.

But this view is changing—which is a good thing. Slowly but surely, higher education is evolving a new paradigm for undergraduate study that erodes the long-standing divide between liberal and professional education. Many liberal arts colleges now offer courses and majors in professional fields; professional disciplines, meanwhile, have become more serious about the arts and sciences. Moreover, universities are encouraging students to include both liberal arts and professional coursework in their programs of study, while internships and other kinds of off-campus experience have gained widespread acceptance in both liberal and professional disciplines. Gradually taking shape is a curricular "third way" that systematically integrates liberal education, professional education, and off-campus experience to produce college graduates who are both well educated and well prepared for the workplace.

Though this trend has not yet coalesced into a movement with a clear identity, evidence of it can be found in the statements of educational leaders and in the offerings of many colleges and universities. It is time to recognize this pattern, to urge its codification as a powerful alternative to traditional practices, and to give it a name. Because this new approach builds bridges between the realm of the intellect and the arenas of action and practice, let us call it "practice-oriented education."

Practice-oriented education began taking shape amid the turbulence of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the twenty years following World War II, academia had enjoyed a golden age of expansion, prosperity, and support. But a combination of student protests, unforeseen financial problems, and the beginnings of the "baby bust" brought that era to an end. Government leaders as well as prospective students and their parents began asking hard questions about higher education's return on investment. The percentage of young people seeking college admission, which had risen steadily since 1945, began to level off, and some feared it might actually decline.

This "time of troubles," as it became known, prompted extensive self-examination within academia and critical commentary by outsiders. Official commissions, campus-based committees, and individual observers offered varying analyses of what had gone wrong and how it could be fixed. The most remarkable example was the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, which from 1968 to 1975 produced ninety reports touching on virtually every aspect of academia.

The most fundamental result of this soul-searching was a greater thoughtfulness about the democratization of higher education. Before World War II the academy had been largely the preserve of elites. After 1945 it became steadily more open—first to veterans, then to the broad middle class, and finally to the truly disadvantaged. The institutional response to this dramatic change in student demographics was not what one might have expected. As its clientele became more "modern," higher education became more traditional. In the prosperity of the postwar years many campuses tried to recast themselves in the image of the Ivy League. New and expanding public universities modeled themselves on top-tier research institutions. Before the war, and during the veterans' era of the late 1940s, professional disciplines had been the fastest-growing ones at four-year institutions. From the mid-1950s through the 1960s, in contrast, the liberal arts boomed.

Study groups of the late 1960s and early 1970s recognized the irony: the expanding college-bound population represented a progressively wider range of backgrounds, needs, and interests, yet higher education was moving toward a single model based on top-ranked campuses. Many concluded that academia simply had to offer more choices. As the Carnegie Commission put it, "A main theme [of our work] is the desirability of a greater diversity of programs to match the greater diversity of students."

Colleges and universities responded in the 1970s with an era of experimentation. Course requirements were loosened. Interdisciplinary programs flourished. Multiculturalism took root, and the "canon" was expanded. Simultaneously, enrollments shifted away from the liberal arts and back toward professional majors, while institutions began to focus on strengthening their distinctive qualities rather than on becoming mini-Harvards.

One reaction to these developments was widespread complaint about an "erosion of standards" taking place. In its 1985 report "Integrity in the College Curriculum," the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the nation's most prominent association of liberal arts colleges, complained, "As for what [now] passes as a college curriculum, almost anything goes." Describing the experimentation as a sign of "confusion as to the mission of the American college and university," the AAC&U expressed particular alarm that "the very distinction between the 'liberal' and the 'vocational' that runs through two millennia of educational theory is no longer universal."

But another response to the trends of the 1970s and 1980s, which received much less attention, may be of greater long-term importance. Some educators recognized that higher education had been permanently democratized, and that many students—including some of the most talented—had a legitimate interest in preparing themselves for the workplace. The most constructive response to these realities, they concluded, was neither to abandon the liberal arts nor to defend them tooth-and-nail against any change but, rather, to build bridges between liberal and professional education, and to bring college closer to adult life by incorporating nonacademic experiences into undergraduate programs.

Presented by

Richard M. Freeland is the president of Northeastern University and the author of Academia's Golden Age (1992). Research assistance for this article was provided by Dan Adams and George Dehner.

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