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Liberal education & professionals

Liberal education & professionalsBACK IN 1722, when Benjamin Franklin was a somewhat naughty young man still living in Boston, Franklin wrote a series of satirical letters to the New England Courant under the pen name Silence Dogood. In one of these letters, he made fun of Harvard College, which he called "The Temple of Theology," and which, then as now, appeared to Bostonians of modest backgrounds to be a snooty and superior institution.

I reflected in my Mind on the extream Folly of those Parents, who, blind to their Childrens Dulnes, and insensible of the Solidity of their Skulls, because they think their Purses can afford it, will needs send them to the Temple of Learning, where for want of a suitable Genius, they learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a Room genteely, (which might as well be acquir'd at a Dancing-School,) and from whence they return, after an Abundance of Trouble and Charge, as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited. Many years later, after he had moved to the less class-bound city of Philadelphia in search of opportunity and had, over time, become its leading citizen, Franklin made it one of his many projects to help found an academy that later became the University of Pennsylvania. It wasn't so much that he had abandoned his earlier skepticism about universities as that he had in mind a different, and to his mind better, kind of university than the hated Harvard. Franklin's university would be practical: It would teach younger versions of himself the skills they needed to become active citizens and independent business proprietors. "As to their STUDIES," he wrote, "it would be well if they could be taught every Thing that is useful, and every Thing that is ornamental. But Art is long, and their Time is short. It is therefore propos'd that they learn those things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental." Note that Franklin put useful ahead of ornamental, and didn't mention theology at all.

Today American universities are still much made fun of, but they are also, arguably, this society's most successful type of institution. The United States invented mass higher education, an idea that an initially skeptical world has substantially accepted, and we now have many more universities and many more university students than any other nation. Our universities aren't just a model for the world, they are more specifically a magnet for the world. The demand on the part of non-Americans to come here and attend American universities overwhelmingly exceeds the supply of places for them.

Multiplicity and unclarity

As in most cases of institutional success, American universities have benefited from conceptual unclarity: they are many things to many people. Lots of university stakeholders interact with them primarily as loci of big-time sports competition and raucous social life, things that have nothing to do with their pedagogical purpose--and yet those stakeholders are deeply, undyingly loyal and generous. For another group of stakeholders, people on the inside, universities lay on a set of ceremonies, rituals, and occasions that, to a newcomer to academe like me, is quite striking in its magnitude.

Even within the realm of their central educational mission, American universities cover a lot of bases. There is what might be called the Benjamin Franklin aspect of universities, the useful-knowledge side, which is an enormous, perhaps even the dominant, element in American higher education today. The Morrill Act of 1862, which created the land-grant universities, was the single most important American innovation in higher education: From it has flowed most of the American university system, which, in Franklin's spirit, teaches economically useful skills to its students.

And this country is also the world's leading home of the small liberal arts college, an institution that usually began with, and often still has, a religious affiliation, and that is primarily focused on small-classroom teaching of a liberal-arts curriculum.

And then, finally, there is the major research university--an educational type that is, again, probably more numerous in the United States than any other country. What strikes me most immediately about universities, or at least my university, Columbia, is how "German" they are--that is, how much everything seems to descend from another of the landmark events in American higher education, the founding of Johns Hopkins as the first full-fledged modern American research university. The power center of the research university is the tenured faculty. Its core activity is publishing. Its most important students are graduate students who are scholars-in-training themselves. Much of the institutional energy of the university goes into seeking to make itself home to as much distinguished and renowned research as possible.

To make matters even more complicated, all these different types of institutions in American higher education by now contain elements adapted from each other. The land-grant colleges teach the liberal arts and have tenured faculty; the liberal arts colleges very often offer practical, business-oriented courses; the research universities have colleges as well as graduate schools. Somehow it all works, but the price we as educators pay for the generally advantageous multiplicity and unclarity of our functions is that we are not always able to state simply and directly what we're doing.

Professional schools and liberal education

Yet another of American higher education's conceptually unclear success stories are professional schools--the part of higher education where I'm now working. One could argue that Ben Franklin's hated early eighteenth-century Harvard was a professional school--a divinity school--and yet it came across to Franklin as airy and impractical. The ancient and honorable professions of law, medicine, and divinity all pride themselves on having their roots in a tradition of pure, unworldly study. But just about all professional schools today--certainly law and medical schools--operate in an atmosphere of intense concern about job prospects and relations with an industry, and increasingly their graduates wind up working in large organizations that are run like business corporations.

At first blush, it might seem that professional schools, especially those that prepare students for life in quasi-commercial fields, might feel uncomfortable in liberal universities. It might even be useful to ask, for purposes of clarifying our thinking on the subject, why professional schools belong in the realm of liberal education at all, rather than, let's say, being free-standing institutions operated by the industries they supply with personnel, not by universities.

Before we get to this question, we should probably spend just a minute on definitions: With both "liberal education" and "profession," we're back in the realm of conceptual unclarity: They are both shaggy, capacious labels that are hung on many disparate things. For our purposes right now, what do they mean?

Liberal education is best defined with its most literal meaning: It is education that liberates, that frees the mind from the constraints of a particular moment and set of circumstances, that permits one to see possibilities that are not immediately apparent, to understand things in a larger context, to think about situations conceptually and analytically, to draw upon a base of master knowledge when faced with specific situations. The essential paradox, or one might even say the miracle of liberal education, is that by being evidently impractical, it equips a student for life far more richly and completely, and across a far wider expanse of time and space, than does education whose sole aim is to be useful.

As for a profession, probably the simplest definition--and one that supports locating professional schools in universities--is a field of endeavor whose practitioners have a collective idea of the good in their work that does not overlap exactly with the self-interest of either themselves or their employers. Professionals have goals and ideals and purposes having to do with the history, the techniques, and the social role of their field, which rise above the daily demands of work. They are in discourse with each other about matters broader than just the completion of the work assignment at hand. Professionals have to deal with complexity in their work. Professionals do work that has a public purpose. I don't think I'm defining a profession tendentiously--but the exercise of defining it does make it clear that there is, or should be, a big difference between job training and professional education. The reason that liberal education and professions make for a potentially good fit is because they have crucially in common a transcendent quality, a commitment to a broad and not necessarily utilitarian perspective.