Faculty perceptions of the relation between liberal arts and professional, vocational, and skills-based programs of study



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ABSTRACT Liberal education, which has been foundational to American higher education since the seventeenth century, is under increasing pressure to give an account of its value to students, parents, and society. Driving this pressure are widely-held expectations that an undergraduate education ought to provide students with the skills and abilities to prosper immediately in the job market. Such expectations have revived a long-standing debate on whether a liberal education is a good in itself, yielding indirect, utilitarian benefits, or intrinsically practical and engaged closely with contemporary social and economic realities. This debate has prompted another related, enduring debate within higher education circles on the proper relationship between liberal education and the professional and applied disciplines. The purpose of this study was to explore the perceptions and experiences of faculty concerning the relation between the liberal arts and professional, vocational, and skills-based undergraduate academic programs. The study participants were 15 purposefully selected faculty who taught at a Tier I, public urban university, a public, urban university in service mainly to adult learners, and a private faith-based university, all located in the Gulf Coast Region of Texas. This qualitative study used a collective case study research design to identify and understand faculty perceptions of and experiences with the relation and interaction of liberal education and the applied academic disciplines. The settings for this study were private conference rooms and faculty offices located on the campuses of the aforementioned universities. Data were collected through multiple methods, including the lens of the researcher, semi-structured, open-ended interviews, print and digital documents, field notes, and reflexive journaling. The constant-comparative method and a three-stage coding process were used to analyze the collected data, develop categories and themes, and interpret and construct meaning. This study’s results indicate that faculty favor an undergraduate education that encourages student to value the play of ideas and the acquisition of practical skills. Faculty also favor forming students in particular academic disciplines, but they believe that such formation should simultaneously keep students alert to productive connections with other disciplines. Faculty affirm that organizational structures and cultures should encourage this sort of disciplinary-based interdisciplinarity. The study concludes with a series of implications and recommendations that suggest how colleges and universities can create cultures of learning that value thinking and doing equally, and structures that enable a vibrant interdisciplinarity, rooted in strong disciplinary commitments.



Liberal education, Interdisciplinary, Professional studies, Vocation, Skills-based, Higher education