Lehigh University (Photo by Christa Neu, Lehigh University Communications and Public Affairs)

Two deans argue that higher education has become overly split, with students feeling they must choose either a practical, financial path, or a traditional liberal arts education.

Georgette Chapman Phillips is the Kevin and Lisa Clayton Dean of the College of Business and Economics at Lehigh University. She was an Arthur Vining Davis Scholar at the 2016 Aspen Ideas Festival, where she recently presented on a panel titled “Accounting or Aristotle: How Undergraduates View Their Future.” 

Donald E. Hall is the Herbert and Ann Siegel Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Lehigh. Here, they make the case for a more integrated kind of education. — Susan Svrluga 

College graduates with degrees in finance or accounting enter the global business world and are faced immediately with questions of cultural difference, ethical complexity and history-laden relationships that few will be able to handle without deep training in how societies function and change over time.

Graduates entering the world of media, philanthropy and community service (as many of those armed with humanities and social sciences degrees do) will likely fail if they are unable to read a balance sheet, understand market forces and grapple with economic threats and trends.

These exiting students have more in common than is often recognized.

It is for this reason that a dean at a business school and a dean of a college of arts and sciences are compelled to voice support for a holistic education, one that integrates liberal arts and business — a hot topic at the recent Aspen Ideas Festival.

Georgette Chapman Phillips – (Photo by Christa Neu / Lehigh University Communications and Public Affairs)

As Lehigh University deans, we join together to challenge the false distinctions that place liberal arts on one side of the undergraduate educational fence and more pre-professional programs (such as business, engineering, nursing) on the other.

We believe we do our students, and by extension ourselves, a disservice when we erect such barriers. Doing so creates the impression that there must be a choice: Either a student studies accounting or philosophy, marketing or literature. This is wrong.

Students’ undergraduate years are a special time. It is possibly the one period in life when they have the opportunity to indulge in unfettered intellectual curiosity and self-exploration.

This applies equally to students in traditional liberal arts schools and to those in more discipline-based environments. From our vantage point, we owe it to our students to teach more than what is (for that is certain to change), but instead to teach how things came to be and where they might go.

We must put our students in the somewhat uncomfortable position of critical introspection by taking classes that challenge their belief systems.

At the same time, we must infuse real-world problem solving with the recognition that theory must, at some point, evolve into practice.

Donald Hall (Photo by Academic Imagery)

One of the foundational goals of a college education should be to deepen and expand a student’s critical and analytical thinking.

This aspiration must be a part of any rigorous education, not just a liberal arts education. The notion of critical thinking and complex reasoning is far more expansive than the liberal arts’ traditional boundaries; just as limiting business students’ exposure solely to accounting and finance classes shortchanges their possibilities, so too does limiting the discussion to humanities or social science for liberal arts students shortchange theirs.

The “habits of mind” that are formed during a student’s undergraduate education need to extend across the spectrum beyond the traditional domain of the liberal arts college or university.

As our students grow into adulthood and become citizen participants in our increasingly global environment, they must be able to adapt and influence change regardless of whether their undergraduate degree is in finance or history.

Having acknowledged the foundational importance of critical thinking across the intellectual expanse, we also must contextualize our educational mission in the currency of our times.

Employers seek “job-ready” students. Internships (paid or unpaid) have become the path to employment. To successfully snag an internship increasingly requires exposure to industry-focused coursework. Just as a business student should study humanities, a liberal arts student should be exposed to Excel and accounting. These are both integral to an undergraduate curriculum for the 21st century.

Lehigh University has long lived and stayed true to these principles of cross-disciplinary education, even in the face of prevailing cultural forces in the United States that sought to narrow higher education to the immediately useful and myopically instrumental — in which technical skills are often superseded or fuzzy idealism about “changing the world” without understanding the technical aspects of how the world works leads to little other than frustration.

For decades now, Lehigh has invested significantly in signature cross-college programs, our integrated degree programs that wed technical perspectives and broader context.

Even those students who do not pursue those programs specifically are encouraged and often required to immerse themselves in disciplines that challenge the silos of their declared majors.

This is what drew us both to this institution. One of us (Dean Hall) holds degrees in German, comparative literature and English, but draws on the knowledge acquired in his undergraduate courses in accounting and marketing every day.

The other (Dean Phillips) holds degrees in political science/Hispanic studies and law, as well as an appointment in the interdisciplinary Africana Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences, and brings that multi-layered awareness to a career in real estate law and today leading a business college.

We stand as examples of what is possible by way of a liberal arts-based education with roots as well in vocational and technical skills.

Parents often use an outcome-based approach to educational choice. Concomitant with the increased cost of education is the increased scrutiny of what jobs are typically available once the diploma is in hand and which majors produce the highest salaries.

We should be mindful to temper this connection.

The education we provide to our students is far more than a means to a paycheck. Let’s be honest: We are both proud of how our graduates fare in the job placement market. However, we are equally proud of how excited they become when describing a “totally mind-blowing” poetry class or have that “aha moment” when they learn how the financial derivative market played a large role in the housing crisis.

Students’ first jobs will be quickly replaced. Their ability to approach problem solving critically and with mature analytical thinking will remain with them forever.

Some colleagues view pre-professional colleges and liberal arts colleges as adversaries in the debate on what constitutes a rigorous college education. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In today’s world, they need to be seamlessly intertwined. A holistic education gives students the tools to ponder and dissect their existence and the world around them while at the same time providing the real-world examples to test their knowledge.

Educators need to ensure that all students are holistically educated by weaving the traditional liberal arts classes together with our specialized offerings to challenge our students to dig deeper in all disciplines. Doing so not only produces students who are ready for jobs and contribute to economic bottom lines, but creates individuals prepared to tackle big questions, contribute to society and lead fulfilling lives.