Peer Review, Winter 2001

Winter 
2001, 
Vol. 3, 
No. 2
Peer Review

From the Editor

For generations, it seems, the undergraduate curriculum has been occupied by and divided between a pair of rival tribes. Each claims to hold a valid deed to the whole property, and neither seems likely to budge. Those who praise the ideals of broad, humanizing study have built a permanent settlement on the high ground, and the followers of professional specialization have cultivated the broad plain below. At best, the two sides have worked out an uneasy truce, with part of the curriculum reserved for general education and part for the majors. Often, though, land has been seized and wells have been poisoned. For instance, the majors (particularly the "professional" majors) have occasionally raided general education for credit hours, expanding their own programs at the expense of course requirements in the arts and sciences. And the liberal arts, for their part, have fueled popular uprisings against the "merely" vocational goals of their neighbors, while trumpeting the intellectual rigor and humanizing effects of their own disciplines.

But is there any reason to balkanize the curriculum in this fashion, and why has this enmity lasted for so long? Why not simply integrate liberal and professional studies? After all, even the most learned of disciplines are professional in origin, whether they can be traced to medieval guilds, linked to Progressive-era social planning, or designed to prepare students for graduate-level study. For that matter, even the most practical of professions are liberal, in the sense that they provide models of informed practice, ethical conduct, and self-criticism.

The integration of liberal and professional studies has always had its champions-the philosophy of John Dewey, most notably, has inspired countless challenges to the habitual separation of theory from practice. However, it is also argued that this dichotomy has had little to do with philosophy and everything to do with economics. The industrial age, goes a familiar critique, required very few workers (or even managers) to develop their intellectual capacities-minds were not often welcome on the factory floor. A liberal education was considered to be necessary and desirable for only a small elite, those destined to become ministers, civic leaders, and college professors, for example.

Of course, this line of reasoning currently offers hope to those of us who would democratize the benefits of a broad, liberal education. In fact, an optimistic scenario is fast becoming cliché: If the nation is now shifting to a post-industrial, information-based economy, then liberal learning is headed for salad days. Conveniently, the skills that business and industry now crave -- flexibility, critical thinking, effective communication, the ability to work in teams -- are precisely the ones that the liberal studies have always advocated (though traditionally in the names of individual freedom and civic responsibility, rather than the making of money).

It strikes us, however, that the details of this new academic landscape remain awfully sketchy. In practice, what would it actually mean to liberalize the professional curriculum? And is it practically and culturally feasible to do so? It's true that certain professional associations -- in fields such as nursing and accounting -- have made strong statements in support of broad undergraduate study, but have our colleges yet succeeded in preparing well-rounded nurses and accountants? And what kinds of inter-disciplinary cooperation will be required? Can computer scientists get along with social scientists? Philosophers with business professors? Astronomers with Agronomists? Even if they do make an effort to bridge their cultural and methodological divides, don't college professors tend eventually to make their ways back to the comforts of their own disciplines?

In this issue of Peer Review, we consider the context for and the challenges of integrating liberal and professional studies in the undergraduate curriculum. Historically, we ask, what has pushed students to specialize or to seek breadth of study? How are economic and other forces now influencing the curriculum? And what has been the experience of those institutions that have tried to create integrated programs?

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