An academic tug-of-war: The absence of pre-professionalism at Princeton
Tilghman’s affirmation of the role of the liberal arts sits against the backdrop of an increasing number of undergraduate colleges today experimenting with curricula mixing pre-professional, vocational and liberal arts education. But Princeton has eschewed pre-professional programs and though it offers programs in finance, journalism and teacher preparation, the University’s approach differs from broader trends in academia.
The liberal arts — such as literature and mathematics — are in diametric contradiction to a pre-professional education, which focuses on developing vocational skills. In fact, the liberal arts are typically defined explicitly as fields that are distinct from any profession.
However, Princeton administrators and faculty choose to define the liberal arts differently. According to former University President Harold Shapiro GS ’64, the liberal arts are not a cluster of subjects but a way of thinking.
“If you’re inducing students to ask the right questions, to be speculative, to be critical of what it is they’re being told and to understand how it relates to larger issues within society, then it would classify to me as liberal arts subject,” he said.
The Program in Teacher Preparation, for example, is not limited to professional questions like how to survive in a classroom or how many minutes to allot for recess, but by asking what society wants the next generation to understand.
Although administrators and faculty have repeatedly underscored the University’s devotion to the liberal arts, there appear to be three different ways the University approaches pre-professional courses.
First, the University advocates for total separation of liberal arts from pre-professional education at the undergraduate level. But it also transforms pre-professional courses into interdisciplinary, liberal-arts focused subjects. Lastly, it permits a few semi pre-professional courses and tracks, like the Teacher Preparation Program, which align with its service mission.
In recent years an increasing number of colleges have adopted mixed curriculums. According to a report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 38.7 percent of the institutions that met criteria for a liberal arts college in 1990 are no longer classified as such. The majority lost their liberal arts designation, according to the study, by diversifying their curricula to include pre-professional and vocational courses like business and nursing.
This trend toward pre-professional majors stems partly from student and parental anxiety about debt and employment in the recovering economy. With increasing amounts of student debt and students nationwide increasingly opting for safer and more profitable majors, many colleges have decided to meet this demand by reducing the number of liberal arts offerings.
Tilghman has criticized such cuts as detrimental to America’s intellectual culture. In past speeches, she has argued that while studying the liberal arts helps one learn how to think critically, communicate and make morally responsible decisions, pre-professional and vocational training can become obsolete with changes in technology and personal career.
However, there is another side to the narrative, as liberal arts colleges often cut pre-professional programs thought to run counter to their institutional missions.
Seven weeks ago, Dean of Emory’s College of Arts and Sciences Robin Forman emailed a four-page letter to students and faculty announcing the elimination of the college’s journalism program along with its Division of Educational Studies, Department of Visual Arts and Department of Physical Education. In an interview with a local media outlet, Forman explained that the reallocation of resources was motivated by a reexamination of the college’s scope.
“Why journalism?” Forman said. “Because it’s simply the fact that it’s not our job, as a liberal arts college, to simply train people to be professional journalists — in the same way it’s not our job to train people to be professional doctors or lawyers or businesspeople,” he said, adding that the college believed “fervently in an ideal of a liberal education.”
In a separate letter to journalism students, program director Hank Klibanoff wrote that the decision came as a surprise.
“I am not sure why preparing our students to be critical thinkers, professional journalists and better-informed citizens, as we do, carries a negative connotation,” he said in the letter.
Stanley Katz, a Wilson School professor who opposed the changes that made the Wilson School more interdisciplinary, argued that studying the liberal arts represented “a unique opportunity to develop yourself intellectually.”
“That’s really the only thing you want to be doing as an undergraduate and whatever vocational training you need, you want to get in graduate school,” he said.
Shapiro shared Katz’s argument that undergraduate years should be dedicated to studying the liberal arts.
“[Pre-professional education] just deals with very practical matters you want to solve today or next week or next month,” Katz said. “And while that has a role ... my own view is that the young should start with bigger issues as an undergraduate.”
A liberal arts lens
These narratives depict pre-professionalism and liberal arts as mutually exclusive. To address this tension and to stay true to its mission while acknowledging the value of pre-professional fields in shaping public discourse, Princeton has attempted to approach traditionally pre-professional disciplines from a liberal arts vantage point.
Consequently, a number of programs and concentrations that are considered pre-professional at other schools, such as engineering, architecture, public policy, finance and journalism, are approached from an interdisciplinary perspective at Princeton.
Philosophy professor Gideon Rosen GS ’92, who chairs the Humanities Council which runs the University’s journalism program, said that although the council had not discussed the possibility of creating a journalism certificate program under his term, it would consider doing so if there was enough student interest. He advocated a holistic rather than pre-professional approach to the subject.
“We combine the teaching of journalism skills with serious engagement with specific areas of journalistic concern. It’s the opposite of a trade school,” he said. “I think a pre-professional program would have more skill-based courses that would be more routine, and we just don’t do that. There’s no point in having a world-class journalist teach you how to do that kind of thing.”
Likewise, economics professor Yacine Ait-Sahalia, who directs the finance program, explained that the finance undergraduate certificate program was highly academic and never intended to be pre-professional.
“The students in the certificate tend to have substantially higher and better academic records than students who are not,” he said, adding that the curriculum made use of tools applicable to theoretical and computational math, microeconomics, asset management and behavioral psychology.
“It is true that some students take it because they have an interest in furthering their career prospects within the financial industry, but that’s a by-product. That’s not what the program is designed for.”
In an interview, Tilghman pointed to the fact that only a minority of engineers graduate to actively work as engineers and only a minority of finance students go on to work in finance as evidence that students don’t perceive their education as job-training.
“There is no department within the University that views as their mission the training of future fill-in-the-blanks,” she said.
Ait-Sahalia said that the certificate program — capped at 80 to 90 students per class — did not significantly affect the number of graduates who entered the industry.
“I think it has made, probably, those students better prepared to understand what finance is all about, but I don’t think this has dramatically altered the overall mix of careers that Princeton students chose when they graduate,” he said.
Exceptions to the rule
The University does offer some exceptions and permit specific pre-professional programs that align with its service mission.
An exception is the Teacher Preparation Program, an undergraduate certificate program which since the 1960s has helped students receive teaching licenses in the state of New Jersey through methods seminars and practice teaching.
Chris Campisano, the director of TPP, explained that Princeton had somewhat of a special mandate to contribute to the education sector.
“It puts the University in a difficult position sometimes to be an elite institution, working with some of the brightest students in the world, but not invested in what happens before they get here,” Campisano said. “You have to be engaged in that conversation and you have to be engaged in that work.”
TPP Associate Director Todd Kent ’83, like the directors of the other University programs, also stressed the fact that teaching was a skill applicable for any field, not just the classroom.
“You could see it very narrowly, as the idea that it is preparing our students for a state license,” he said, “but [students] gain, I think, a whole lot more through the experiences and the study of teaching and education that they can apply throughout their lives, in different situations.”
Supplementing the liberal arts: Peer schools
Administrators, students and faculty alike have praised the University’s interdisciplinary, liberal arts approach to pre-professional courses. But there may be advantages to curricula that allow students to pick up pre-professional skills as undergraduates and campuses that allow students to mingle with faculty and students from professional schools.
Penn is often cited as a model for the integration of pre-professional and liberal arts programs within the Ivy League. In a keynote speech given two years ago, Penn President and former Princeton Provost Amy Gutmann said students shouldn’t be quarantined from professional education and “real world experiences.”
“Just as infusing pre-professional education with liberal learning can have a life-transforming, career-enhancing impact,” she said, “so, too, can infusing a liberal arts education with understanding the demands and responsibilities of professional life.”
However, other peer schools also have more opportunities for students to explore their professional interests in an academic setting.
New York University’s Professional Edge Program, for example, allows students with a GPA of 3.65 or higher to earn a non-credit professional certificate in areas like intellectual property law, publishing, real estate, translation or digital animation through the School of Continuing and Professional Studies. The grade and credit restrictions ensure that students are able to complement, but not replace, their liberal arts majors and minors with their professional interests.
Similarly, Brown offers a combined A.B./MD degree and concentrations in “Business, Entrepreneurship and Organizations” and “Education” while Dartmouth and Yale offers courses for undergraduates at their respective business schools. Students can determine whether they like the field after studying it for an extended period of time in class.
Secondly, although Princeton’s small graduate program and lack of professional schools permit the University to concentrate more of its resources on undergraduates, it also limits opportunities to network with professionals and gain insight from professionals as teachers.
At Harvard, students can take select courses at Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School and MIT’s Sloan School of Management through cross registration, and their new General Education requirements involve lectures by faculty from the professional schools as part of Harvard’s “One University” initiative.
Meanwhile, Stanford’s website boasts that its “students enjoy a remarkable degree of academic freedom in comparison to [their] Ivy League peers” because their academic programs develop “the knowledge you need” while “preserving the flexibility you want.” While citing evidence for this claim, the website points out that undergraduate students can participate in seminars led by faculty from Stanford’s School of Law, School of Business and School of Medicine.
While Princeton students are among the strongest advocates of the liberal arts curriculum, many are also aware of these larger trends within higher education. Some students believe that if the University’s learning model is segmented — receiving a liberal arts education as an undergraduate and a pre-professional education during graduate school — it could do more to ease the transition.
Pre-medical students, without a formal program but under the guidance of the Health Professions Advising office, said they wish the University could better support their pre-professional interests.
Jessica Triplett ’14, president of the Minority Association of Pre-Med Students, said that though HPA did a good job of providing students with a list of local doctors they could shadow, she still missed the ebb and flow of medical researchers and students. This would otherwise take place on a campus with a medical center, she said.
Lawrence Chang ’14, president of the Princeton Premedical Society, said he was impressed with the range of courses offered to pre-meds in some departments but noticed that they tended to focus “more on the science aspect of medical subjects.”
“The social aspect of the medical profession is less well represented, and as such a medical course on decision making [like] ethics on an individual case by case basis would be nice,” he said, adding that the HPA and the society worked in tandem to bring speakers to campus as a way of filling this gap.
Maria Chen ’14, treasurer for the Princeton Premedical Society, said she also missed the lack of clinical research opportunities and, like Triplett, acknowledged the need for an anatomy and physiology course on campus. She said she liked the fact that the lack of a pre-med major made pre-med students “more likely to try other things,” but said it was hard for students purely interested in medicine to gain good shadowing experiences.
She said the few pre-professional offerings like the Emergency Medical Technician program, in which she participates, are often hard to fit into the busy Princeton schedule.
“In the training process, it’s more than taking an extra course; it’s like taking three extra courses,” Chen said.
Room for change?
Overall, while the University’s model works for many students and faculty, they say, some argue that it could be improved with more attention given toward helping students explore and develop their pre-professional interests.
TPP graduate Christopher Shephard ’98, who majored in EEB with a certificate in Environmental Studies as an undergraduate, said he “didn’t really see any conflict” between his academic and professional pursuits in the classroom.
“While I was at Princeton they blended really seamlessly, and I have to say that the Teacher Prep program was one of the places where I ... learned the most and where the lessons ... stuck with me the longest.”
Shephard, who witnessed fellow students struggle to elevate ethnic studies from certificates to departments during his time at Princeton, understood that it was healthy for the University’s curriculum to be “contested constantly.”
“I think the back-of the envelope, knee-jerk reaction is going to be something like: ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got your whole life to be something like a lawyer in business. Why would you start that any earlier? You are going to lose this chance to think critically or think broadly,’ “ he said. “But we can’t have any holy cows ... We have to be willing to entertain all options.”
Correction: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated the certificate of Christopher Shephard '98. He earned a certificate in Environmental Studies. Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article misstated the president of the Princeton Premedical Society. Lawrence Chang '14 is the president of the organization. The 'Prince' regrets the errors.