Preparing FUS graduates for the modern world
by Jason Negri
I feel I must interject something into the current debate over the nature of a liberal arts institution and the curriculum at Franciscan University. Unlike the typical modern college, at FUS the Life of the Mind is extolled, and education is valued for its own sake, as pointed out admirably by senior Ben Brown in a recent issue of the Concourse. Seeing our educational mission as anything else (ostensibly, lesser) would be a betrayal of our identity as a university, he says. Thus, the humanities enjoy a position of primacy in the supposed “hierarchy of knowledge,” while the professional and pre-professional programs are secondary. Mr. Brown also stresses the distinction between education and training—a valuable distinction to be sure, but one that should not be overdone. Although he pleads the opposite, his comments cannot but be construed as denigrating “training” to mere utilitarianism, and I find this unfair.
When I was a student (majoring in history and French), I firmly subscribed to the classical idea that knowledge for its own sake was the highest and best goal of a university education. However, whether because I have been “mugged by reality” since then, or because of my contact with the many alumni who wish that FUS had “trained” them better, I find myself taking quite a different position today.
I believe we must recognize that in modern America, students come to college to prepare for a job as much as for any other reason—it is perhaps the primary reason. Because of this, we do our students a disservice if we allow them to graduate unprepared for the world. To narrow the education we offer so that it precludes (or at least drastically under-emphasizes computer exposure, business/economic knowledge or other valuable (though non-liberal) classes would risk precisely that.
My position, no doubt, seems like a betrayal of liberal arts education, the historical purpose of which has been to form the minds and character of students, and precisely not to prepare them to find a job. But I submit that those who hold this may be refusing to accept reality in favor of an elitist ideal whose time is past. Romanticizing the past and attempting to recreate it today is futile, and a model that worked for medieval European society may not work at all for modern America. To stand for higher ideals (e.g. education for its own sake) is right and good, but not to the point of disparaging or neglecting the practical preparation our alumni will need to thrive in the world.
The traditional model of a liberal arts education certainly sounds nobler and “higher” than a “professional program.” Thus we tend to choose it without critically examining whether it will truly meet our needs. If strengthening our liberal arts core means notably weakening our professional programs to an extent that our alumni in these programs are deficient in their fields, we have misled our students. I hope that a way can be found to strengthen our core liberal arts offerings without compromising the integrity of our professional programs. If it were, I would enthusiastically support it. However, I would also advocate a strengthening of our more practical, training-type programs for all our students.
Taking care not to abuse my privileged position as a staff member who deals directly with our alumni, let me share with you a sampling of the sentiments of some who have passed through our doors. They are, after all, our “end product.” Please bear in mind that our alumni are, by and large, quite satisfied with the education they received here. Do not interpret my selected comments as indicative of endemic dissatisfaction—nothing could be further from the truth. However, the recurring criticism I hear in one area is enough to warrant a closer examination of this aspect of the Franciscan University experience.
What do I hear from alumni who have left the “Ivory Tower”? Observations such as “computer training should have been required;” “There ought to have been more emphasis on career planning;” and “I wish someone had told me what I should have studied to make myself more marketable.” Many a young man has contacted my office a few years after graduation because he was unable to find a job. I am sympathetic to their plight, having experienced something similar myself a few years back. Like me, these young men had not looked beyond the rhetoric.
An interesting element in this discussion is that many students, enamored with their professors and with the intellectual life, would disagree with my position vehemently, arguing that nothing compares to the noble goal of knowledge for its own sake. They would contend ardently that the humanities are what we should be about, and anything else (including career and practical life preparation) is mundane and inferior by comparison. It is not until these students graduate with oppressive student loan debts and can’t find a job that they realize how their opinion might have been somewhat myopic. And some of them blame their alma mater for not having prepared them better.
Do not misunderstand me, I place a high value on a liberal arts education, as it teaches us about the “higher things” that make this rather mundane existence beautiful. Philosophy, theology, literature and the other humanities are essential and should occupy a prominent place in the curriculum of a self-professed liberal arts university. However, I do not think that their neglect would ever be an issue. I think the danger is rather that Franciscan University would begin to focus too exclusively on this type of education, relegating the professional and pre-professional programs to second-place status. This I could not support, because it is elitist, impractical and especially, short-sighted.
I think many would agree with my dream of seeing every Franciscan University student graduate, with his or her head held high—entering “the world” ready to sanctify the workplace and be a true leaven to what has become a materialistic and, arguably, a nihilistic society. That is, after all, what we prepare for during our years here. But part of that preparation—an essential part of it—is acquiring the skills necessary to enter the workforce to begin with. n
Jason Negri graduated from FUS in 1992. He now serves as Director of Alumni Relations.