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Radford Words: Are a Liberal Arts Education and Career Training Mutually Exclusive?

Radford Words
Are a Liberal Arts Education and Career Training Mutually Exclusive?

Increasingly, colleges and universities are tasked with producing graduates that are not simply well-educated, but well-prepared to enter the workforce. While the two are not mutually exclusive, it does seem the debate over higher education as a desirable end in itself or the means to a career has taken on more prominence of late. Prospective students and parents can find it difficult to chart a course resulting in a quality education as well as a rewarding career.
Ann Ferren, a professor of educational studies at Radford University and a participant in the study of this question with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, says many factors are reshaping liberal arts education.
One factor is the rising cost of higher education. Ferren says this leads students and parents alike to look at majors that will insure a rapid return on their substantial investment, such as engineering, communications and information technology.
"Parents and students think there is a straighter line," says Ferren. This has led many four-year institutions to focus on strengthening curricula that have a more obvious professional linkage. Another factor is pushing that trend, as well.
"There is a strong push in many states for higher education to be part of economic development," says Ferren. An increasing number of trade schools and trade-oriented curricula at community colleges offer training that is currently in demand and on a shorter timetable for mastery of that training than the traditional four-year college or university. In turn, this trend is fueled by rapidly changing technologies and their effect on business and the workplace.
Regardless of what career a student chooses, however, Ferren says employers still want to the same qualities in college graduates.
"In many cases they are saying they want someone that can think well, write well, get along with others, and recognize we're in a global economy."
These traits, she says, insure that liberal arts will continue to have an enduring hold at colleges and universities, since a strong liberal arts education ideally facilitates those skills.
"Every campus is trying to define its take on the liberal arts to address the false dichotomy between education and career preparation," says Ferren. "There are more bridges being built between liberal arts and professional programs."
Political science professor Matt Franck, also of Radford University, isn't so sure of the value of liberal arts components in every curriculum. To Franck, the purpose of a higher education should primarily be to learn how to live more wisely, hence more happily. A legitimate secondary purpose is preparation for a career, which is why a typical curriculum is divided into a general education or a liberal arts "core," on the one hand, and a major on the other. Franck questions the assumption that every job needs to be filled by a college graduate.
"From the perspective of society at large, there is a real question whether we have not extended higher education to too many people," says Franck. "It's not that we shouldn't take an interest in everyone's wisdom and happiness. But it is undeniably the case that if higher education is truly to be "higher," i.e. more advanced and therefore more difficult than primary and secondary education, it will be and should be too difficult for a great many people who got through high school with no real trouble. We are already, at many universities--not to mention community colleges, admitting people who can't handle college-level work in any discipline whatsoever."
"I heard an interesting talk recently in which the speaker argued that we have an employment market today that uses 'college,' not as a sign that prospective employees know anything whatsoever that the employer would find useful, not even the ability to write a competent memo, but merely as a proxy for 'he or she is now in his or her early 20s and will probably show up to work on time every morning.' There is no reason, the speaker argued, why a new bank teller should have a college degree, not even if he wants to rise in the bank. The desperate effort to keep students in college once they are here, in order to keep up enrollment numbers, has the predictable effect of dragging down the quality of higher education for everyone."
While Ferren agrees with Franck on the primary purpose of higher education, she differs in her belief about the relative importance of the liberal arts component in ostensibly professional courses like accounting.
"Professional accountant programs do not want to turn out drone accountant graduates," she says, emphasizing that the teaching of ethics is a core liberal arts component--and one that has been conspicuously absent in some instances, such as the Enron scandal.
More to the point, Ferren says a liberal arts education is necessary to provide individuals with the necessary skills to cope in this age.
"A good liberal arts education gives you more of a selective intelligence to attend to a complex world," she says. "A good liberal arts education helps you realize it's a self-directed life. It's up to you to grow and change."

Article courtesy of Radford University (

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