Liberal arts and professional programs: a reply to Jason Negri
by Ben Brown
I would like to thank Jason Negri for his article on the important place of the professional programs here at FUS. He is certainly right to point out that “we do our students a disservice if we allow them to graduate unprepared for the world.” The nature and role of universities and colleges in the modern world is different from what it has been in past times, and we would be both unobservant and remiss to not take account of that change. A college degree has become a necessity for most career fields, and most students go to college simply for the professional training. FUS, therefore, has good reason to have professional programs, and the stronger they are the better.
Though Mr. Negri accuses me of “denigrating ‘training’ to mere utilitarianism,” I think that if he looks closely he will find he is of one mind with me in this matter, though I wouldn’t call it either denigration or utilitarianism. His article takes for granted the point that professional training is “practical preparation” which attempts to “meet our needs,” that it is, in other words, utilitarian, or useful. Mr. Negri seems to agree with me that professional training, rather than being its own end, is good for what it allows one to do. I tend to think, therefore, that his accusation is not really directed so much towards “utilitarianism” as it is towards a view of professional training as relatively unimportant and even ignoble, a position which I certainly do not hold.
Mr. Negri thinks that I denigrate professional training because of my emphasis on the liberal arts. While I do hold to a hierarchy of knowledge, a hierarchy in which the liberal arts are higher than professional training, it does not follow, though many people seem to think that it does, that the liberal arts are absolutely better. They are higher in the order of knowledge, and so better in that regard, but they are not better when it comes to other things, such as fixing cars, building bridges, running corporations, etc. To a certain extent a liberal arts education and professional training are incommensurable, that is, not comparable in terms of which is better. Each is good in its own sphere and cannot be exactly measured against the other. Insofar as they are both considered with regard to knowledge, the liberal arts are higher than professional training, but there are other regards in which the opposite is the case. Given this clarification, I think that Mr. Negri and I are in agreement.
Mr. Negri wants to have a school in which both the liberal arts and the professional programs are strong. I am wholly in agreement with him. The difficult question, however, is how to accomplish this balance, which is where, I think, we disagree. As he points out, we cannot accomplish it by elevating the liberal arts to the point of denigrating the professional programs. But the converse is also true. Mr. Negri seems to think that the neglect of the liberal arts “would never be an issue,” but I think that his own article exemplifies just the opposite. He characterizes a liberal arts education unmixed with professional training as an “elitist ideal whose time is past” which “refuses to accept reality,” “has not looked beyond the rhetoric,” and which is “impractical and ... short-sighted.” I constantly hear students complaining about having to take philosophy, English, or history classes; given the opportunity, they would completely avoid such things. This is hardly a situation in which the liberal arts are not likely to be neglected.
Whatever a university may represent for the majority of modern America, FUS is not it. We are a liberal arts university, which means that every student who walks out of our doors should have at least the foundation of a liberal arts education. If he/she does not, then FUS has utterly failed with regard to that student. The same, however, cannot be said with regard to professional training. And if having to take certain core courses prevents a student from making his computer science or business training all that it could be (though as things stand now that should not happen), so be it. Because FUS is a liberal arts institution there is (or should be) a general expectation of every single student in this regard. Some people (though I do not think that Mr. Negri is one of them) seem to think that it would be better if we were not a liberal arts school. Maybe so, but that’s largely irrelevant at this point, for as a matter of fact we are, and as such we have a duty to provide a liberal arts education to every student. This duty must be first and foremost in all that we do as long as we remain a liberal arts university.
This does not mean that our professional programs are unimportant or lowly or ignoble. A certain degree of professional training should actually take place in all majors. Even philosophy majors should be taught how to do professional philosophy. What it does mean is that students cannot attend FUS as if it were a technical school, and, therefore, that philosophy classes may very well bite into time spent studying business. But that should not be seen as weakness; if it is, then maybe someone’s at the wrong school. Liberal arts universities which have professional programs provide a unique opportunity for students to get something of both worlds, but we must keep in mind that FUS is a liberal arts university with professional programs, and not a technical school with a few philosophy classes left over from medieval days.
Mr. Negri concludes his article by remarking that “entering ‘the world’ ready to sanctify the workplace ... is, after all, what we prepare for during our years here.” I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s not what I’m here for. Sure, I hope that I will be able to sanctify whatever place I find myself in, and I hope that my time here will make me more able to do so, but it’s not the reason for my being here. I am at FUS to be educated, and any other reasons are secondary.
Something which Mr. Negri seems to miss, though, is that a liberal arts education is quite important to the effective sanctification of the workplace. He says that a liberal arts education has high value because it “teaches us about the ‘higher things’ that make this rather mundane existence beautiful.” I submit that that is not even the most important end of a liberal arts education, but that the perfection, or cultivation, of the intellect is in fact the primary end. Being able to think clearly and coherently and reason correctly is a must for sanctifying the workplace. Personal testimony and example are often insufficient; one must be able to give reasons and argue persuasively, and keep one’s head while doing so. I have worked in many environments with many different people, and though I’m sure my example, sincerity and faith have had an impact, what has most influenced people (visibly, at least) is my arguments. One can hardly expect to sanctify anything if all he can say is, “Well, I just believe that it’s so.” In an age where extraordinarily muddled thinking (often the worst of which is among Christians, including this very campus) is the status quo, a liberal arts education is all the more necessary for any Christian student entering the work-a-day world.
That we are a liberal arts university means that it may be impossible to have the best of both worlds, the best of professional training and the liberal arts. After all, a student can only do so much in four years. On the other hand, it may not, in which case I am, with Mr. Negri, all for the strengthening of both. But if one of them has to suffer, it cannot be the liberal arts, not if FUS is to remain true to its principles.
As it stands, I do not think that most people realize what a weak liberal arts program we have. A few core classes hardly constitute a liberal arts education, and the way that the core can currently be satisfied allows most students to be able to graduate without a single philosophy class! Years ago, when FUS was facing extinction, a decision was made to lessen the liberal arts and strengthen the professional programs in order to draw more students. Now that we are bursting at the seams, is it not time to rebuild the liberal arts? Do we not owe this to our students? Do we not owe it to ourselves?
Ben Brown is a senior philosophy/math/computer science major, President of the Franciscan University Student Forum and Contributing Editor of the Concourse.