Liberal Arts-Professional Divide Is an Illusion

06/30/2015 10:31 am ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016

A decade ago I might have revealed my perception that there existed a strange and even dirty little secret within the liberal arts college sector -- that many national liberal arts colleges have offered robust "professional" programs, but that they could not talk about them openly. After all, if an institution wished to be recognized as a member of the most prestigious group of "pure" national liberal arts colleges, it could not speak overtly of its "professional" programs or even of the ways in which it prepares students to succeed in a professional setting. Such a "shallow" message would have been anathema to the liberal arts.

This liberal arts-professional divide assumes that the arts and sciences represent a rigid and unchanging curriculum entirely detached from professional sectors. And, never the twain shall meet. However, such a simplistic statement does not track with reality. The liberal arts have necessarily evolved far beyond classical antiquity's quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) at every college or university. At Cornell College, for example, we now offer 54 different majors, minors, pre-professional programs, and cooperative programs. Just look at computer science as one example. Now considered a liberal arts field, how could we have even recognized it as one before the invention of a computer? What we consider part of the arts and sciences has necessarily developed over time to meet the expanding scope of knowledge and changing needs of society, and will continue to do so.

What the research fortunately shows is that student learning has not deteriorated as additional schools have added more professionally focused programs. (By "more-professionally" I don't mean "vocational." While there is a place for vocational education, which teaches skills for a particular job, more professionally focused programs prepare students for entry into a career field or for graduate training in a particular field, such as law or medicine.) One 2014 study conducted at the University of Iowa concluded that "growth in... critical thinking, moral reasoning, the need for cognition, intercultural effectiveness, and psychological well-being -- over four years does not differ by major at liberal arts colleges. Findings from this study suggest that a student's academic major field category -- liberal arts versus professional/vocational -- is not a significant predictor of gain on most of the liberal arts student learning outcomes." Put another way, as long as student learning occurs within the context of the liberal arts college -- with small classes, on a residential campus, with a good portion of students' studies taking place within a broad program of liberal education, with the faculty's primary focus on teaching, learning is not being diminished as a result of the addition of more professionally focused programs.

I am not suggesting that colleges should abandon the liberal arts. Quite to the contrary: Our very mission is rooted in the liberal arts. And, society needs our students to know how to integrate and apply knowledge uniquely gained from a broad general education, which includes disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives in the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. That broad education helps our students to learn how to develop ethically appropriate solutions to contemporary and enduring problems, and then communicate those solutions to others in artful and captivating ways. At the same time, it is imperative that we participate as leaders in the continued evolution of the liberal arts -- not only in the academic programs we offer, but also in our understanding of the professional preparation that benefits our students regardless of their major.

If there is anything good to have emerged from the Great Recession, it is that it has more quickly eroded the perceived divide between the arts and sciences and professional fields. Particularly in a tougher economy, students and parents are looking for the value-added aspect of a college education. Parents rightly ask, "Can my child get a job straight out of college, especially when I believe that I will have to pay so much for my child to get that education?" A 2013 study by Eduventures found a disconnect between what prospective students and their families seek in a college education, and what employers look for in employees. Students identified three outcomes of college as most important: 1) in-depth knowledge and expertise in a major; 2) pursuit of a personally fulfilling career path; and 3) skills to help enter into a specific career. Career preparation is clearly on their minds. Meanwhile, the top three skills that employers seek are: 1) the ability to work in a team structure; 2) the ability to verbally communicate with people in and out of an organization; and 3) the ability to make decisions and solve problems. In fact, the study said, "only two of the traits employers look for are in the top ten outcomes students want to achieve."

These results place into stark relief what liberal arts colleges have to accomplish. We must market to prospective students in a manner that speaks to those outcomes that they believe they need to achieve through college, and, at the same time, we must educate them in a manner that reflects what employers say they seek. In so doing, we must also help students and their families appreciate that what a liberal arts education provides goes above and beyond what they initially were looking for.

Cornell College recently added two new academic programs, both of which have historically had a professional patina to them: business and engineering sciences. The faculty overwhelmingly endorsed these new programs because they play to our institutional strengths and reflect what we know is demanded by prospective students and employers alike. These new majors will also help us to further unravel the artificial divide between the liberal arts and professional programs. These offerings are not at all unprecedented, as Cornell College had a very well-recognized engineering program in the 19th century. And, many other fine national liberal arts colleges, such as Swarthmore, Smith, and Hope colleges, offer engineering. In addition, Cornell College offered various forms of a business curriculum from 1867 into the 1960s.

Leaders in higher education are increasingly recognizing that the distinction between professional fields and the liberal arts is an illusion generated by history. The liberal arts as an educational philosophy is preparation for ANY profession, and the specific skills that transcend any academic discipline instilled by the liberal arts are sought devoutly by employers in all fields. How, then, can one argue that a liberal arts education is not already a professional preparation?