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Professional vs. Liberal Arts: A Critical

The debate between the relative value of a pure liberal arts education and one that combines the liberal arts with professional experience has been fueling academic fires for decades. Some believe that the debate has no place in the modern academy. Historically some students who pursued the professional arts- business and education on the undergraduate level- were made to feel “second class” citizens of the university’s liberal arts. Frequently, media students admitted to these programs were accused of entering the university through the “back door.” And frequently this was a “self-fulfilling” prophecy. Many of these students were less credentialed than their counterparts in the arts and sciences. However a review of the history of the academy should eliminate this accusation. Some of the oldest universities were founded for professional purposes. Challenging the myth that the liberal arts and the professional studies and experience are separate is a key element of the current transformation in both undergraduate and postgraduate liberal education.

But questions remain: What is a liberal education and what is the meaning of liberal arts? There has always been disagreement and even confusion within the academy about what is meant by undergraduate liberal education. Most colleges or universities purport to offer their students a liberal education, but when pressed for particulars educators provide conflicting definitions. Some have concluded, “endless faculty debates over what a liberal arts education is are not resolved because educators and others entertain fundamentally differing conceptions of liberal education.”(Blanchard, p.253) And they always will. Some educators argue that particular courses, certain distributions of courses, or certain processes or methods taught in courses are most important for a liberal education.

Today’s journalists’ educational experience should draw from both the purpose of education, which is the formation of a philosophical habit rooted in freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom. It is exercises of mind, reason, and reflection. These are good and every future journalist should be exposed to a curriculum that develops these “goods”. Hachten’s belief that education should produce people who possess both culture and expert knowledge of journalistic field should also be accommodated. Both Hachten’s book and the article by Stephen Reese linked culture and education. General culture of mind is the best aid to professional and scientific study. There does not have to be any distinction between the professional and liberal arts in acquiring this “general culture of mind.”

Despite substantial occupational, organizational, and societal pressures, the liberally educated journalists have the ability to reason independently and possesses a capacity for “moral imagination” to get around major constraints and act on principle, rather than to rely unthinkingly on occupational or company conventions, policies, and rules of procedure. Consistent with these attributes of the liberally educated professional in the field of journalism, a reformed undergraduate professional program committed to liberal education is empowering its future journalists with the knowledge, skills, and perspectives that would enhance their development as ethical professionals with a high degree of control over their media field. In the case of communication and mass media programs, this means, among other things, replacement of “unquestioning dependence” on the culture of the marketdriven communication industry and “related occupations with a concern for public service.” (Reese, p.70).

The state of media education is due in large part to the paralysis and confusion described. The discipline is caught between the ideal of the liberal ethos of the New Professionalism and the imagined imperative of the occupational ethos. A major concern is that the discipline’s dilemma cannot be resolved and reform cannot take place without an affirmative, purposeful shift from industrial and occupational and individualistic values to liberal university traditions and community priorities. The New Professionalism may be a switch in time for the industry as well as for the discipline. For some agree that the reformers who believe that “the modern information and communication industries increasingly need employees who can think and act independently and who can help media companies eliminate their internal rigidities.” (Hachten, p. 210) But personnel cogs that many occupational-ethos programs produce are for industrial needs, not appropriate for emerging, horizontally organized information companies. When graduates have been prepared to exercise authority to shape the nature of their own work they will be better employees for the information society.

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It, in effect, would transform the communication and mass media programs from industry followers to active collaborators and participants. Media managers are getting a good deal and see no need for change. But this is a bad deal for communication and media education programs, faculty, and students. How and what should they do to change the relationship between liberal arts and professional experience? In order to overcome the discipline’s paralysis and confusion, reformers should seek to understand the system, especially practitioners’ views and motivations about education and the market and social forces that reinforce them.

As we have already suggested, there is strong resistance to curricular change in many practitioner circles, especially among the middle management and representatives of organizations and associations of journalists, broadcasters, and advertising and public relations specialists. These include, but are not limited to, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Public Relations Society of America, the American Advertising Federation, the American Newspaper Publishers Association, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Radio-Television News Directors Association and their regional, state, and local chapters, and those of other occupational associations.

Even allowing for their high-powered profit motives and personal and business eccentricities, we would expect that media communication executives and pioneers would grasp the significance of the connection between liberal arts and journalists success in the future career and recognize it as an enlightened, integrative, liberating curriculum for future media professionals. Their successes, after all, “are based at least in part on their vision and capacity to understand the fundamental linkages in the information and entertainment business, which transcend particular media delivery systems.”(McHaie, p. 35) Unfortunately, the successes of media executives and pioneers also may be due in part to their capacity not to concern themselves with issues- such as the undergraduate experience or the role of professional education in. universities-that do not appear to directly impact on their more tangibly profitable activities. Thus, it is the middle management level and occupational association and organization bureaucrats and careerists to whom such matters are delegated, and it is they who are most vocal about and influential in industry personnel policymaking.

The futility of debating dogmatic distinctions between professional experience and liberal studies becomes apparent when the suggestion is made that the primary purpose of a liberal arts education is not career preparation-or, at least, it was not in the past. The other point is that professional studies, even though they may have to be recognized and tolerated because of their student popularity, should remain separate from the so-called traditional liberal arts and the notion on professional experience. The antithesis between a professional and a liberal education is fallacious. There can be no adequate professional education or experience which is not liberal, and no liberal education which is not professional; that is, no education which does not impart both technique and intellectual vision. In simpler language, education should turn out the pupil with something he knows well and something he can do well. This intimate union of practice and theory aids both. The intellect does not work best in a vacuum. The stimulation of creative impulse requires especially in the case of journalism student, the quick transition to practice.

Blanchard, Robert. Media Education and the Liberal Arts: A Blueprint for the New Professionalism. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993.

McHaie, Kathryn. Changes and Experiments in Liberal Arts Education. Chicago: Public School Publishers, 1998-reprinted edition.

Hachten, William. The Troubles of Journalism. New York: Random House, 1997.

Reese, Stephen. “The Progressive Potential of Journalism Education.” Harvard International Journal of Press, Vol. 4, (1999): p.70.

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