A Third Way: Integrating Liberal and Professional Education

By Richard Freeland

My talk is about Experiential Education and Liberal Learning. This topic has been on my mind ever since I graduated from a liberal arts college many years ago and began my first real job, whereupon I discovered—to my surprise and at some cost to my ego—how much I did not know about putting my ideas to effective use in the world beyond academia. But in addition to my personal interests, the relationship between liberal learning and effective action has become increasingly important for educators in the U.S. over the past several decades, although we are far from anything like consensus on this matter among liberal arts educators. I have chosen this topic for this conference for chief academic officers, because I believe the academic leaders of our colleges and universities have a critically important role to play in what I call the “necessary revolution in liberal education.”

Experiential education, of course, has its roots in occupational and professional education, which in turn, grew from the tradition of apprenticeships. Within the professional context, experiential education has taken many forms, from clinical work in health and medical education, to practice teaching for future educators, to cooperative education in engineering and business. In all these fields, the value of experiential education is obvious: The purpose of occupational and professional studies is to prepare students to work in non-academic settings. Common sense tells us that classroom study can take students only so far in equipping them to perform surgery or build a bridge or manage a sixth-grade classroom. Employers confirm this obvious point. College graduates whose programs include some form of experiential education are far readier for the workplace than those whose preparation is limited to classroom study.

Liberal education, in contrast to professional studies, has its roots in the education of gentlemen and historically had almost nothing to do with preparing students for useful activity of any sort. Indeed, one of the foundational texts of liberal learning, Cardinal Newman’s famous essay on “the idea of a university,” is in some respects an attack on practical education, arguing at eloquent length that “knowledge is its own reward” and that the goal of a university education is to “raise the intellectual tone of society … and refine the intercourse of private life.” As liberal education developed in the U.S., however, it did come to be seen as foundational for advanced professional studies in a wide variety of fields, but champions of the liberal arts continued to draw a bright line between liberal learning and preparation for the workplace. I remember the contempt that faculty at my undergraduate college conveyed toward any suggestion that our education had anything to do with preparing for an actual job. This attitude is still, I think, quite common among faculty in the liberal arts and sciences.

Intellectual qualities outside academy

There is, however, a problem with the way we’ve been characterizing liberal education, a problem that becomes evident the moment you read the mission statement of virtually any liberal arts college. Such statements almost never stress purely intellectual qualities in the manner of Cardinal Newman. Such statements almost always insist that the college is focused on developing the capacity to act effectively in the world after college, both in the workplace and in civic life. The proposition offered by champions of traditional liberal education, therefore, is that a curriculum focused entirely on nurturing intellectual qualities in classroom settings is also the best possible preparation for effective action outside the walls of the academy.

I will be the first to acknowledge the truth in this proposition. It is surely the case that intellectual skills associated with the liberal arts and sciences—critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, effective communications, a generalized adaptability—are vitally important for effective practice, especially in a world where the demands of the workplace are constantly changing. I would also argue that the intellectual context provided by liberal education—an understanding of different perspectives, an appreciation of history, a grasp of psychology and social structure, an awareness of ethical traditions—is also tremendously helpful in informing wise decisions in the nonacademic world.

Granting all of that, I would still argue that the argument that liberal learning in the traditional form that I experienced it in the 1960s is the best possible preparation for action in the nonacademic world is deeply flawed and, to the best of my knowledge, unsupported by empirical research. This is a topic to which I will return more explicitly in a few moments.

It is important to note at this point, however, that, despite the history of distance, and even some antagonism, between the traditions of liberal and professional learning, the boundaries between these two halves of the academic walnut have become blurrier in recent years. On the professional side, most accrediting agencies now insist that the programs they certify include a substantial component of liberal education. On the liberal side, most colleges of arts and sciences have adopted programmatic practices that have roots in professional education. Indeed, most now offer some professional majors, or at least courses in applied fields. Some are using pedagogical practices first developed in professional fields—things like simulations, case studies and group projects focused on problem-solving. In addition, most liberal arts colleges now offer some form of experiential education, typically in the form of internships, or civic engagement opportunities, or service-learning courses—although these experiences often do not carry academic credit and are mostly on the margins of the basic curriculum.

Convergence of liberal and professional education

Why is this convergence of liberal and professional education occurring? I believe the reason is that, in one way or another, students are demanding it. The unchanging reality is that a large percentage of young people in the U.S., including those attending liberal arts colleges or majoring in a liberal arts fields, seek to improve their qualifications for employment and, more broadly, to prepare themselves to act effectively in the world after graduation. Most will not go to graduate school. Most wisely want their undergraduate years to include some attention to practical skills and some experience in the nonacademic world. Colleges—needing to maintain their enrollments—have come to understand this reality.

This coming together of liberal and professional education has brought us to a fascinating moment in the history of undergraduate studies. Historically, we have had two just two main categories: liberal education and professional education, each with distinct goals and traditions. But now a third category seems to be emerging based upon an integration of the two, with experiential education playing an important role. This movement remains fragmented, even inchoate. It does not yet have a name. I once tried to label it “practice oriented education” but that title did not stick. Still the movement is evident in undergraduate institutions all across the country.

The most impressive example of the trend toward combining the strengths of liberal learning and practical studies is the LEAP project of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The acronym L-E-A-P stands for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. It represents a massive effort by the AAC&U to build a new model of liberal learning that makes sense for our country’s highly democratized system of higher education in the 21st century. The centerpiece of the LEAP initiative is a statement of the goals of liberal education in the form of 15 specific outcomes developed through wide-ranging consultation with faculty and employers. Amazingly, the AAC&U achieved a remarkable degree of agreement in support of the LEAP framework. Colleges and universities all over the country are using it as the basis for their own undergraduate programs of liberal studies.

There are many interesting things about the LEAP construct. I want to focus on its insistence that liberal education include an emphasis on practice. One category of LEAP outcomes, for example is “intellectual and practical skills” and one of the outcomes listed in this category is “teamwork and problem solving.” Another category is “personal and social responsibility” and two of the outcomes listed under this category are “civic engagement” and “ethical reasoning and action.” In addition, an overarching principle of LEAP is an insistence that the knowledge and skills and responsibilities it seeks to nurture must be demonstrated through “application … in new settings and complex problems.”

This emphasis on action, on teamwork, on problem-solving in new settings seems to me to represent a fundamentally different notion of liberal education than the one to which I was treated so many years ago. Nothing in my undergraduate education was about application except insofar as application meant producing a paper. There were exceptions around the edges, like lab work in the sciences or studios in the arts, but at its heart, this education was about the intellect, about cognition, about thinking and analysis and the mastery of challenging material—all hugely important and all essential to effective action in the world, but all one very large step short of actually applying these intellectual qualities and skills to real problems in authentic settings.

The LEAP framework does not make explicit reference to experiential learning. but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how the two are linked. Indeed, some years ago I organized a conference at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., on the connection between liberal education and effective practice. The conference included educators from liberal arts backgrounds as well as professionals—business executives, lawyers, government officials—who had attended liberal arts colleges. A central focus of the event was the role of experiential education in promoting the capacity to act effectively in the world. Conference attendees—both educators and practitioners—were unanimous in the conclusion that experiential education should play a central role. As the president of Wellesley College put it, noting overwhelming evidence of the benefits of experiential education, “one wonders why everyone doesn’t just do it.”

Making liberal arts experiential

Having agreed without difficulty on the value of experiential education, the Clark conferees quickly turned to the political challenge of getting this kind of experience included in the undergraduate curriculum of a liberal arts college. At this point the Wellesley president acknowledged that she and her dean had spent three years conducting a carefully managed and richly resourced process to persuade her faculty to make experiential education an integral component of the Wellesley curriculum and had failed. The resistance was too deep, the commitment to established disciplinary norms too powerful, the aversion to learning a whole new pedagogical approach too daunting. After three years of discussion and experimentation, experiential education at Wellesley remained what it had been at the beginning: available in a few courses because of the interest of individual faculty and widely available in the form of non-credit experiences, but mostly disconnected from the curriculum.

This is, in my view, a sad story, amusing perhaps in the predictability of its outcome, but deeply sad in terms of what it says about liberal education today, at least at one of the country’s elite liberal arts institutions. As the Clark conference confirmed, and as the AAC&U LEAP initiative demonstrates, we are at a moment when there is wide agreement that linking undergraduate studies in the liberal arts and sciences with the capacities of effective practice is an important goal. We are also at a moment when there is wide agreement that the capacities of effective practice involve more than the intellectual qualities traditionally associated with the liberal arts and sciences, qualities like self-direction, discipline, perseverance, imagination and the ability to work in groups and across boundaries of difference.

Many institutions are wrestling with the question of how to turn these general ideas into programmatic reality. At Clark, a particularly ambitious and interesting effort along these lines has developed (with strong faculty involvement) a category of goals within its liberal arts curriculum labeled “capacities of effective practice,” which include exactly the kind of non-intellectual qualities I have just mentioned. The evidence that experiential education can play a critical role in developing these qualities in students is, as the Wellesley president noted, overwhelming. It is without question the single most powerful pedagogical device I have encountered not only to nurture essential non-intellectual capacities but also to deepen a student’s intellectual grasp of the ideas they are studying in the classroom.

But, as the Wellesley experience makes clear, it is a hard sell with a liberal arts faculty whose members tend to believe that undergraduate education comes in only two flavors, with liberal education on one side and practical studies on the other. The third category that draws on the strengths of both may exist in fact but not yet in theory. This is what I meant a few moments ago when I spoke of the “necessary revolution in liberal education.” We are an industry that advances by fostering broad agreement, not by executive action. We need to help our faculty colleagues get beyond an instinctive aversion to explicitly practice-oriented components within their overall curricular structures. Chief academic officers, the people gathered in this room, are ideally positioned to lead in this effort.

Push for more

I end this morning with a plea that you take this challenge on in whatever form makes sense when the opportunity arises in your individual institutional settings. Your presence at this conference suggests an openness to the ideas I have been discussing. Engaging this challenge with the faculties you lead, however, will be difficult and risky. The temptation will be to pull back, admit that the resistance is too strong, and settle for marginal gains. We need to push for more. Our students deserve more. I urge you to play a leadership role in what I believe is truly a national movement with historic significance.

I wish I had some formula for advancing this cause that can ensure success, but I do not. The best I can do is summarize a long discussion about this matter at the Clark conference. The academic administrators among the conferees agreed that efforts to directly confront the biases of liberal arts faculty against adding practical experiences to the curriculum were not likely to be effective. The most hopeful approach seemed to have three essential components.

First, we need to engage the faculty in a discussion of goals and outcomes—get them talking not about their disciplines but about how they want the curriculum to empower their students. Such a discussion, just like the typical college catalog, will quickly range beyond purely intellectual outcomes to a discussion of equipping young people to act effectively in the world beyond college.

The second component involves promoting a culture of assessment—fostering an atmosphere of openness to looking at evidence, at research on pedagogical outcomes in relationship to goals. Such an exploration comes naturally to academics and will, I am confident, point toward the power of experiential education as a powerful means to accomplish the goals being sought.

The third component of the process is to provide faculty leaders and volunteers with the space and support to experiment with new pedagogical approaches. That will take time and money but the investment of both is more than worth it.

John Dewey taught us over a century ago that it is impossible to separate deep learning form experience. Liberal education has spent the intervening hundred years ignoring that fundamentally obvious insight. We are now at a moment when we can recover that truth to the great benefit of the next generation as well as the country. I urge you to be part of that effort.

Richard Freeland is a distinguished professor at Northeastern University, where he was president of from 1996 to 2006, He was commissioner of higher education for Massachusetts from 2009 until 2015. This piece is drawn from Freeland’s April talk to the WACE Chief Academic Officer Colloquium. WACE is the only international professional organization dedicated to developing, expanding, branding and advocating for cooperative & work-integrated education programs within industry and educational institutions. These programs include: cooperative education, internships, semester in industry, international co-op exchanges, study abroad, research, clinical rotations, service learning and community service.

Some Previous NEJHE (Connection) Articles by Richard Freeland:

Coming Into Focus: A New Vision for Public Higher Education in Massachusetts

Reform Immigration!

A Critical Condition: Healthcare Workforce Crisis

There Is No Shortage of Teachers, Just Skilled Teachers


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