Liberal Arts and Practical Experience: A False Dichotomy

President's Perspective

September 2011

At the heart of our work at Ursinus is providing the optimal educational experience for our students. But I also believe that part of our responsibility entails helping students orient themselves to life after graduation by guiding their next steps into the world beyond the College. What experiences can they have at Ursinus that extend beyond the campus, including internships, study abroad, research, service learning and philanthropy?

You might say, we are a liberal arts college, and we don’t offer pre-professional training. Let me explain that I am not advocating adding more applied majors, but asking how we might better bridge the campus experience and the world of advanced study and work that lies beyond it.

I believe that we have to get away from the false dichotomy of liberal versus applied education. In fact, what has dawned on the national level, in large part through the leadership of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, is the insight that liberal education is not limited to a certain set of majors, that one can teach the professions liberally. What characterizes liberal education is the philosophical approach that encompasses a gamut of bodies of knowledge, skills and civic engagement.

Studies have shown that employers want essential learning outcomes that are coincident with a liberal education. AAC&U defines the outlines of liberal education for all students as what should they know, what they should be able to do, and how they should engage in society. A survey that asked employers what they want colleges to emphasize had surprising results: employers want greater facility in oral communication, critical thinking and analytical reasoning, problem solving, creativity and innovation, and teamwork; they are less interested in any particular body of knowledge. (For those who want further information, the AACU study is here.)

What I hear from employers is that they want a certain modicum of knowledge that enables entry-level employees to be effective, but what really determines the long term success of an employee are the abilities to think critically, communicate effectively, work cooperatively, and act ethically. Far from regarding liberal education is at odds with employment, the two should be linked more closely because the skills and dispositions that are inculcated by liberal education are exactly what employers are looking for.

We have a good track record—members of the Class of 2010 who responded to our annual Post Graduation Destination survey indicated that 60 percent were employed, 30 percent were doing graduate study and 8.2 percent were traveling on fellowship, engaged in volunteer service or enlisted in the military.

The liberal education students receive at Ursinus enables them to master different ways of knowing. This is essential because nationally, 60 percent of students graduate in majors different from those in which they began, and current students will change careers seven times over a lifetime. Because of these uncertainties, our graduates need to be adaptable. One-third of them will work at jobs that don’t yet exist.

Ursinus students must cultivate the ability to make a living, but also to make their lives worth living. We are well on our way. For example, two of our education minors did exciting and impressive summer internships in urban education. Jervis Hudson ’12 taught in an Uncommon School in New York City, one of 23 accepted from 350 who applied. He was placed in a school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and his performance led to a job offer after he graduates. Katie Costner ’13 helped in the development of a charter school in Trenton, N.J., where she was responsible for helping form the curriculum. She has been invited back next summer. Both found their experiences confirmation of their desire to pursue careers in education.

Jessica Neuman ’13, an English major, spent the summer as Educator Coordinator at United Way of Lancaster County. Art major Kyla Wind ’12, documented an arts camp through photography. Biology major Andrew Corbetter ’13, interned with 1989 graduate Dr. Fred McAlpin in orthopedics. Amber Samuels ’12, a psychology major, was an environmental education and animal behavior intern at the Philladelphia Zoo.

There were many others, and they all have a common advantage: they are better prepared to make the transition from Ursinus to post-baccalaureate activities.

The Ursinus Independent Learning Experience is designed to link studies with the world beyond the classroom. What I hope for our students is something even more universal: that someday every student who graduates has had an internship or opportunity to do faculty-student cooperative research, or, that all students have had access to an alumni network to help them think through their plans for advanced study or employment.

Indeed, there is a significant role for alumni engagement. We have begun to look at creating an alumni database that can be sorted by expertise, by ability and by geography. If a student from the Midwest wants to return home for the summer and obtain an internship in Chicago and Cleveland, we will have alumni there who can help. I would love to see a national alumni network that is tied into the educational program of the college in this way.

It is one thing to teach a subject – it is another thing to teach the student. For our students to be true masters of what they learn, they need the added dimension of practical experience, and we need to look at how they can be offered such opportunities while matriculating at Ursinus.

Go Bears!

Bobby Fong

President, Ursinus College