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Essential tension of liberal arts in relation to professional studies

Published: March 17, 2006
Section: Opinions


Lee Shulman, the President of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, spoke to a mixed crowd of students, faculty, staff, and administrators on Monday, February 27, in Rapaporte Treasure Hall. His talk, called Professing the Liberal Arts: The Fundamental Tension of Liberal and Professional Learning in Higher Education, was both a report on the studies of the Carnegie Foundation and a platform for telling meaningful anecdotes related to what constitutes the most effective kind of liberal arts education. Shulman is an inspiring visionary in the higher education community, believing that the liberal arts must be seen as tools for thought, not just prerequisites for thoughta vision that involves students acting, creating, and experiencing early on in their undergraduate careers. Learning how to think need not always precede action. For effectiveness and engagement, Shulman says, learning involves students in public performance, actively engaging the habits of the mind (theory and thought), of the hand (practice), and of the heart (ethics) all together.

As a liberal arts university, Brandeis curriculum is designed so that students receive a broad education, but there always exists the essential tension of the liberal arts in relation to professional studies. The challenge is how to balance the two, providing enough hands-on, real-life applications in the context of a liberal arts education.
Here at Brandeis, the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences is attempting to reach this balance by spearheading a new initiative in experiential learning, which means just what it says. Students currently have the opportunity to receive credit for a variety of experiential learning outlets which include, though are not limited to, the following categories: academic internships, creative and studio work, field-based experience, guided inquiry/research, service learning, and practice teaching. Certain departments and programs naturally emphasize experiential learning (think of the creative arts and science labs), but it may surprise you where else experiential learning exists.

An inherent part of experiential learning is personal initiative, which requires both students and professors to step outside of their comfort zone, and to look beyond the standard classroom and the typical student-professor relationship for teaching and learning opportunities. Other experiential learning programs exist at schools like Wagner College, the University of Vermont, and Mount Holyoke College, so Brandeis is not alone in placing emphasis on the benefits of practicing the liberal arts.
As the student representatives to the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee, we would like to encourage our peers and professors to get involved in experiential learningand, if we follow Shulmans advice, earlier is better. There are many available resources on campus to support the numerous manifestations of experiential learning. First, there are two administrators who work in the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences who deal expressly with learning outside of the classroom: Thara Fuller is the Academic Coordinator for Experiential Learning and Sarah Tedford is the Americorps VISTA staff member who assists with service learning and student volunteering. These women are available to discuss ideas and offer suggestions. This semester their office is offering funding, on a pilot-basis, for students who are engaged in some form of experiential learning to present their projects to the wider Brandeis community.

There will be a student showcase of experiential learning on March 27, 2006 in the Shapiro Atrium from 4:30-8:30 p.m. The presentations are in five categories: business and finance, creative arts, health and the environment, scientific research, and social justice. At 5 p.m. President Reinharz will speak, celebrating the achievements of the students, whose presentations will follow. At 7 p.m. the Dean of Arts and Sciences, Adam Jaffe, will host an open forum with the Brandeis community about experiential learning. You can submit a question ahead of time for Dean Jaffe by emailing tfuller@brandeis.edu.

Additionally, near the end of March, an experiential learning website will be launched at the following web address: www.brandeis.edu/experientiallearning. The website functions first as way to provide the Brandeis community with information about experiential learningboth credit and non-credit options for students as well as information for faculty and staff to assist with classroom integration of experiential learning. Also, in the future, there will be profiles of students engaged in experiential learning and highlights of class projects, which will bring greater visibility to these efforts and stimulate ideas among all who learn about their experiences. Additionally, there is already a website about academic internships at www.brandeis.edu/programs/internships.

Both authors of this article are currently involved in experiential learning projects which can serve as illustrations of the opportunities available. Ariel Strauss has an internship through the Legal Studies Program, working two days a week in a pro-bono law firm which assists people close to poverty in maximizing their income. Lianna Levine has been studying early vocal music and its challenges in performance as part of an independent project in the Music Department, and will present a repertoire spanning different countries and genres in a lecture-demonstration.

There is no better time than now to take advantage of Brandeis experiential learning opportunities. We hope that students find the most meaningful way to balance a liberal arts education with specific interests and professional goals. The ultimate goal for the future of liberal arts will be a total integration of thought-building with skill-building, but for now the initiative rests within each individual learner and teacher, and we invite you to take that first step. We encourage all of you to attend the kick-off event on March 27th to learn more and take part in the student forum.