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Uniting Liberal and Professional Learning
through Christian Mission
Stephany Schlachter

We have seen an expanding public dialogue in recent years about the value of the liberal arts. This includes books such as Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015) and campaigns such as the Council of Independent Colleges’ “Securing America’s Future: The Power of Liberal Arts Education” (2016). Initiatives such as these have reached a national audience and prompted scores of debates, symposia, and conferences. I have participated, and will continue to participate, in these types of activities. But it often seems that there is a missing element in this dialogue, and that is the further exploration of the role of professional education.

To be sure, there are often references to professional education in these conversations, but at times it is alluded to as part of the problem. Zakaria states, “The liberal arts are under attack…Politicians have taken the lead in questioning the worth of humanities for the nation’s workforce…this heavy vocational (job related) focus is shortsighted and limiting. Specific vocational knowledge is often outdated in a few years.”

To some degree, the campaign to advance liberal arts has created a separation between liberal and professional education. But perhaps a constructive strategy might be more effective: integrating liberal and professional education grounded in practice as well as in mission.

My own journey toward this view began during undergraduate studies in nursing at Loyola University Chicago. While nursing is a professional degree, the focus on the liberal arts, particularly in general education, has had a lifelong effect on me, as it does for so many graduates of Jesuit universities.

After practicing nursing for a few years, I returned to graduate school to become a nursing educator. The focus of my dissertation was not nursing but public policy. As I had quickly learned, while professional nursing education is essential, it is not enough. Issues of social inequity, poverty, culture, and politics play an equal role in health care. The integration of the liberal arts into my professional education had quickly found its way into practice.

Eventually I became a tenured professor and after some time I found myself in a variety of administrative roles, including for the past 16 years my current role as a provost. Once again, I was reminded of the importance of professional learning in fields such as business, human resources, and technology—but never without the integration of liberal learning.

For example, you cannot be an effective administrator without the understanding of systems theory. I learned this in nursing. When there is something wrong with the heart, you can be sure it has an effect on the kidneys and lungs. Nothing exists alone. So too, one’s thinking as an administrator has to be systems-based and interdisciplinary, drawing together principles and concepts from such disciplines as philosophy, sociology, and political science. To look only at the immediate problem is to miss much.

Liberal learning has enriched my role as an administrator in other ways. When dealing with a personnel issue, for example, I often find myself musing lines from Shakespeare: “The quality of mercy is not strained / it droppeth as the gentle rain from the heaven, upon the place beneath. It is twice blest / it blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.”

And when I occasionally find myself in a meeting that seems to go on into eternity—although these meetings have not yet ended in death—I can’t help but take an existential moment to recall Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Louis Rey. I ask myself what brings this particular group of people together at this time and on this day, and how did we arrive at this moment?

And when the significant disruption we are currently experiencing in higher education becomes really confusing and challenging, Durkheim’s concept of anomie helps me to consider the situation in a different way.

And finally, regarding communication, I know that the message is important, but I also remember that it is not just what people say, but what and how people hear. Thus, as I choose how to communicate, I am often reminded of Marshall McCluhan’s words, “The medium is also the message.”

In addition to these examples, an administrator needs knowledge of a range of disciplines in the arts and sciences to be effective. I am fortunate to work at a university that understands and values the integration of liberal arts and professional learning. This emphasis comes from the university’s mission. The Lewis University mission reads, “Guided by our Catholic and Lasallian heritage, we provide to a diverse student population, programs for a liberal and professional education, grounded in the interaction of knowledge and fidelity, in the search for truth.”

Allow me to unpack this. I am not a theologian, but I understand that the mission of most faith-based universities is directed toward the search for truth. Our role as educators is to help students understand that God as Ultimate Reality is encountered in all of creation. Creation is dynamic, yet ordered, and thus open to inquiry. This leads us toward a continuous exploration and understanding of the meaning of life.

To this end, the students’ understanding of “liberal and professional education” needs to be coupled with the “interaction of knowledge and fidelity.” In a faith-based institution, it is not enough to come away with only knowledge; rather, there is a need to integrate that knowledge with fidelity. Faculty should be competent in their disciplinary knowledge, but also be able to teach in a way that leads to an exploration of meaning and values. Liberal and professional learning together provide the real life, practical, holistic context in which this exploration can take place. To address the development of the “complete person,” as our mission states, is to take into consideration both aspects of learning.

Let me give you an example. Over the years, I have taught graduate classes in health care policy. It is important that students learn about health care finance, regulations, policies, and law. But that knowledge base is not enough. Equally important is fidelity. One must also ask questions such as, “What are you committed to?” “What are the principles, values, and ethics that guide your use of this knowledge?” In terms of health care, for example, how much of your overall hospital budget should be directed toward the poor? How do you address issues in the community that contribute to illness? What happens when you discharge someone from the hospital who does not have the resources for self-care?

While it is not the professor’s responsibility to answer the questions, she or he must challenge students to consider the values inherent in their new knowledge and to integrate that learning into their own search for truth. This is the core of the integration of liberal and professional learning. This interaction is necessary in the search for truth.

At Lewis, our appreciation for the integration of liberal and professional learning stems from a tradition that dates back more than 350 years. John Baptist de La Salle founded the Christian Brothers, the religious institute that sponsors Lewis University. De La Salle founded schools in 17th-century France that welcomed poor students as well as wealthy ones.  From the beginning, the schools were pragmatic and offered an integrated curriculum of both religious and secular instruction. They also provided an opportunity to learn professional skills. For example, a school might teach navigation if it was near a seaport. The dignity of work, a key concept of Catholic intellectual thought, has always been important in Lasallian schools, and it remains in place in the sixty plus Lasallian universities around the world.

There are several examples of the integration of liberal and professional learning I would like to share. I recall an interaction many years ago when, at dinner the night before fall convocation, the keynote speaker asked several Lewis faculty members on the planning committee how he might address the normal faculty tension between liberal arts and the professions. His dinner companions paused, looked at each other, and responded, “What tension?” The integration of liberal and professional education, in the search for truth, is at the core of our mission.

Many years ago when I arrived at Lewis, there was never a question of whether my discipline of professional nursing education fit into the overall educational goals of the university. Faculty from various professional disciplines served on the general education renewal committee with those from the humanities, social and physical sciences, and all of our perspectives were well respected.

We all participated in something called “semester themes,” in which faculty from various departments engaged in presentations on major topics. One year the topic was the sun. Each discipline had a particular perspective, and it was amazing how much both the students and the faculty learned from each other. Today, that tradition continues through our Arts and Ideas program, which brings together faculty and students to reflect on various fine arts, professional, and topical interests in an annual series of campus offerings. Over the past several years, faculty have delivered interdisciplinary presentations on subjects such as food and violence.

The Lowell Stahl Center for Entrepreneurship and Real Estate at Lewis University provides opportunities to compete for funding for innovative products. In one of the projects, faculty members from chemistry, art, and business worked together to create a solar panel that was functional, aesthetically beautiful, and potentially marketable.

This semester, faculty from biology, chemistry, physics, and history are working with a theologian to teach a seminar in science and faith. These types of collaborations serve as a venue to share our talents and perspectives in light of our mission.

In higher education, we need to work together because we value the opportunity to learn from each other and create things for the betterment of others that are greater than any one of our parts. We need to work together because it allows us to more fully address the integration of knowledge with values, in our own work, and in our teaching. And we need to work together because this is how students best learn to reflect, to serve others, and to clarify their values, and to prepare for the world of work.

Yes we continue to face challenges to making this integration successful. For example, students do not always understand the full value of general education requirements. We need to help them better understand. We also need to more effectively address the integration of these courses into their professional majors.

An additional challenge professional programs face is the increasing number of accreditation requirements. These requirements take time away from interdisciplinary coursework, dialogue, and reflection. Despite these challenges however, the transition to integrative learning is prevailing.

In the Association of American Colleges & Universities monograph Faculty Leadership for Integrative Liberal Learning (2015), Ann Ferren and David Paris aptly observe that in this environment, “faculty in the arts and sciences programs increasingly realize the necessity and desirability of addressing students’ career concerns, and faculty in the preprofessional and vocational programs likewise realize the value of grounding their work in a broad liberal education.”

Just last year, the integration of both liberal and professional learning has come to the forefront of these discussions in William M. Sullivan’s book, The Power of Integrated Learning (2016). The book received praise from Richard Ekman, president of Council of Independent Colleges, who said, “It is possible for a college to provide high quality education in both the liberal arts and the professions, and . . . this admixture also can increase the exercise of civic responsibility by students.” And Carol Geary Schneider, past president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, said that this organization has “declared integrative learning the ‘21st century liberal art.’ This concept provides ‘compelling evidence that creating connections across disciplines, between the liberal arts and professional studies, and between the college and the wider community is the most powerful way to help students chart a course for life and develop their capacities to make a positive difference in the wider world’” (2016).

“Chart a course for life” and “make a positive difference in the wider world”—those sound like the mission statements of many of our universities. I am happy to note that of the 25 institutions Sullivan features in The Power of Integrated Learning, several are members of the LFP National Network.

This is a new phase in the advancement of liberal learning. We have come to understand that coupling liberal arts with professional education provides the context for both critical and practical learning opportunities. Addressing both together, as we integrate knowledge with faith and values, facilitates the learning that best reflects our missions. And, after all, the pursuit of our missions is our common goal.

 

Stephany Schlachter is provost of Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois. This essay was adapted from a talk she gave at the Lilly Fellows Program 2016 Workshop for Senior Administrators at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

Works Cited

Council of Independent Colleges. “Securing America’s Future: The Power of Liberal Arts Education,” Campaign for the Liberal Arts and Liberal Arts Colleges. Washington, D.C. (2016).

Ferren, Ann S., Paris, David C. Faculty Leadership for Integrative Liberal Learning. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2015.

Sullivan, William M. The Power of Integrated Learning: Higher Education for Success in Life, Work, and Society. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, L.L.C., 2015.

Zakaria, Fareed. In Defense of a Liberal Education. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015

 

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