In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kelly Field reported that Bates College, a liberal-arts institution is offering classes with alumni, known as “practicioner-taught courses” ranging in subject matter from “Brand Culture Building” to “Private Equity.” These courses, are “meant to be more practical and applied than the typical liberal-arts fare, giving students a window into potential careers, skills that would serve them in those careers, and connections to alumni who might help them land a job.” Further, Field reports that these classes “are part of a push by Bates and other liberal-arts colleges to clarify the connections between classroom and career, and to prepare students for lives of meaningful work” all with the common goal to “increase graduates’ confidence that they can succeed in an increasingly technical work force, and to dispel parents’ and policy makers’ doubts about the returns on an expensive liberal-arts degree.” More specifically, at Bates, there are now “five practitioner-taught courses and more than 75 ‘infused’ classes, where faculty members apply classroom lessons to real-world problems.” Additionally, Bates runs “an internship program, with subsidies for students in unpaid or low-paid posts,” as well as “a popular short class called ‘Life Architecture’ for juniors and seniors ‘who feel relatively undecided about their next steps after college.’” While many higher education institutions are interested in helping their students gain practical real-world experiences, Bates stands out from the pack because its “purposeful-work” initiative “blends the philosophical and the pragmatic, offering students both concrete skills and an overarching theory of work: namely, that it ought to have both personal meaning and societal relevance.”
On the basis of purpose, however, the goal that the liberal-arts can prepare students for a purposeful, fulfilled life, is not new and some “Proponents of [liberal-arts] colleges would argue that it cuts to the core of their mission.” However, as Fields reports, “until recently, many college leaders assumed that if they started with smart students and gave them a well-rounded education, everything would fall into place.” While many colleges, as well as many college faculty members (myself included) still maintain that the focus of college should be a college education and not a guaranteed career, “That mind-set” because “harder to defend since the 2008 recession, when widespread job losses led more Americans to approach education as a means to an end.”
I attended a small, private liberal arts college, not all that different from Bates. Although my alma mater, Wofford College, did not offer specific “practicioner-taught courses,” I felt as though the curriculum was never too divorced from real-life experiences, particularly in my environmental studies (ENVS) major. As an ENVS student I had frequent exposure to local farmers, worked part-time as a guide to community members and school groups, and also had several class periods taught by ENVS alumni working in industry. While none of these courses were quite as extensive as what Bates is doing, they all opened my eyes to the vast applications of an ENVS degree! I applaud my own alma mater, as well as Bates and other liberal-arts institutions for moving in this direction. I believe that in order to preserve the future of the liberal arts, institutions must connect this diverse curriculum to careers, not to show how the university serves industry, but instead, to show how liberal-arts graduates can re-make and re-fashion all sorts of industries.