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The Undergraduate Education Debate: Liberal Arts vs. Professional Career-Oriented Curriculum?

The debate over what to teach and how to teach it has been taking place in America since the inception of the colonial colleges in the seventeenth century. At the center of the debate is the merits of studying a liberal arts curriculum vs. a professional career-oriented one. The discussion has taken center stage in historically significant texts such as the Yale Report of 1828 and in W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Talented Tenth” which appeared as an excerpt in Booker T.

Washington’s book The Negro Problem. According to DuBois, If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools–intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it–this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life (The Talented Tenth 1903). The writers of the Yale report and W.E.B. DuBois were advocates of a liberal arts curriculum that creates well-educated men equipped with the intellectual skills and character necessary to learn virtually any professional expertise after attending college. In contrast, Booker T. Washington believed an industrial career-oriented education was the most effective way to elevate the American Negro race to a better station in life. Today, this remains a pressing issue as educators and administrators continue the search for the appropriate undergraduate curriculum to teach their constituency.


One institution who is leading the way in innovative curricular and program design is the National University of Singapore, NUS. In the last several years NUS has partnered with the Peabody School of Music, Duke University, and most recently Yale University. Established in 2011, Yale-NUS delivers a curriculum that is rooted in two years of common core liberal arts studies that each student must take. These courses feature studies in Literature & Humanities, Philosophy, Political Thought, Quantitative Reasoning, Comparative Social Inquiry, Scientific Inquiry, Modern Social Thought, and Scientific Inquiry. Students choose their major at the end of their Sophomore year and complete the remaining 54 module credits in their chosen field. In the article “An Educated Core” Rethinking what liberal-arts undergraduates ought to learn, and how, John S. Rosenberg writes, how will NUS know if this enormous investment pays off? Tan Chorh Chuan, the university’s president, noted that higher education in Singapore “came from a British foundation, with early, narrow specialization,” but now, “We have to think about a future-ready graduate…able to zoom out and zoom in” to identify problems, define options, and build relationships that span cultures and boundaries. To cope in a “multicentric” world, he said, “We need a lot more breadth, with rigor” (HarvardMagazine.com 2017). To validate the new program, Yale-NUS is currently showcasing the gainful employment of its new graduates on the homepage of their website. Students have gone on to work in such industries as technology at Facebook, Sales, and Marketing at Luminance, Television Production at Infinite Studios, and as an Intelligence Analyst at Soufan Group.


In my previous employment as Dean of Online Programs and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs, I had the responsibility to co-create, implement, and manage innovative on-campus and online programs and curricula that best suited our constituency. We developed curriculum based on what we believe are the five core competencies music students need to be

competitive and successful as entrepreneurs in the current music industry. They are; musicianship skills, instrument skills, music production knowledge, music business acumen, and literacy. This curricular design features a balance of career-preparedness and liberal arts such as critical thinking, problem-solving, oral communication, and writing.


When I assess the debate of which undergraduate education is more appropriate, a liberal arts curriculum or a professional career-oriented one, I believe the answer to the question lies in examining the world in which we live and determining the skills students need to possess to be competitive and successful in the marketplace. The colonial colleges fulfilled the service of educating privileged white Christian men for statehood or a life in the ministry. In the eighteenth century as more diverse populations enrolled in college, including the rise of women’s colleges and HBCU’s, curriculum expanded to include the sciences and agriculture to prepare students for employment in a rapidly changing America and serve our democracy. Institutions must be innovative in their program and curriculum design and harness the latest technologies to assist in its delivery to meet the needs of our democracy and ever-changing global world. Additionally, an appropriate balance of liberal arts and career-oriented curriculum is needed for students to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, communicators, writers; to be skilled and employable.

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