Merging the Liberal Arts with Career-Oriented Curricula

By Aja Storm Kennedy

Despite various scholars attesting to the fact that the critical thinking skills and expanded worldview one receives from a liberal arts education can be applied to multiple fields, many students with professional or career-oriented majors fail to see the academic relevance of the liberal arts to their field of study. The attitude that liberal arts and professional studies are mutually exclusive can be largely attributed to university curricula that present the liberal arts as general requirements, which translates as irrelevant filler classes to students majoring outside of the field. This attitude prevents professional students from discovering the very real and beneficial ways studying the liberal arts can improve performance in their own career fields, and many academics believe desegregating the liberal arts and professional studies in university curricula can help students with career-oriented majors reach their full potential.

Two such figures are Loni Bordoloi, program director at the Teagle Foundation, and James J. Winebrake, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology. In their article “Bringing the Liberal Arts to Engineering Education,” Bordoloi and Winebrake assert that “integrating the liberal arts in engineering education positions future engineers to be successful at anticipating, defining, and solving [the complex problems of our time].” They go on to cite Richard Miller, president of Olin College of Engineering, who believes today’s engineering education is lacking “design and creativity, teamwork and interdisciplinary thinking, and [an] understanding [of] the social, political, historical, and economic context of a project.” As aptly noted by Bordoloi and Winebrake, the weaknesses of engineering education are strengths of liberal arts education; therefore, it’s possible the failures of today’s engineering programs could be amended by incorporating the liberal arts into the curricula. Various engineering programs across the country have already taken this step, including Lawrence Technological University in Michigan. At Lawrence, World Masterpiece courses require engineering students to study literature with central themes involving the price of technological advancement and man verses nature. This raises students’ awareness about different social and cultural attitudes towards technology, and gives them a broader context to consider when determining the best way to implement their designs in society.

Business courses at Framingham State University in Massachusetts have also begun to adopt a liberal arts approach to coursework. In his article “The Practical Liberal Arts,” Ira Silver writes that, in entrepreneurship classes at Framingham, students are required to consider multiple views when creating proposals for possible startup companies. They are instructed to critique one another’s proposals and interview actual entrepreneurs in order to develop a well-rounded plan through effective communication and meaningful exchanges. Taking a multifaceted approach to what presents itself as a single issue is a hallmark of liberal arts study. In the business world, such a critical approach could result in more comprehensive business plans and companies that consider their effect on various social, cultural, and geographical groups before making important decisions.  

The classes at Framingham and Lawrence reflect what Tony Woodcock refers to as the “symbiosis between the Liberal Arts and business/technological training but without detriment to either” in his article “The Death of Liberal Arts? Or the Reunion of Broken Parts.” The liberal arts do not overshadow the students’ business or engineering education, but enhances it through interdisciplinarity. As Woodcock explains, the liberal arts and technological studies have always been complimentary fields. He notes that the innovations of the past have largely been the result of “curiosity, argument, thought, reflection, philosophy and critical thinking which are the very foundations of the Liberal Arts.” Such methods of thinking facilitated the advancements of the scientific revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and now the Information Age, and can continue to enhance development in these fields if their value is recognized and utilized. By integrating the liberal arts into programs for engineering, business, technology, and more, universities can produce a new class of professional students who are both exceptionally innovative and socially responsible. 

Aja Storm Kennedy is a junior at Howard University majoring in English and minoring in sociology. Howard University is home to the Gamma of The District of Columbia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.