Oct. 24, 2011

Students debate whether liberal arts or pre-professional education lead to careers

Bridging the gap between the liberal arts and a pre-professional education is a debate that takes place on many campuses around the world, said John W. Sipple, associate professor of development sociology at Cornell and moderator of a debate, Oct. 22 in Rockefeller Hall.

The debate was part of the first annual Connect forum, an all-day conference with workshops to examine the relationship between the liberal arts and pre-professional education. "Most of the speakers come from professional backgrounds but are now realizing the value of all kinds of backgrounds," said Dan Yang '12, vice president of operations for Connect, which was founded last year by Dylan Rapoport '12.

"It is our contention that education in the liberal arts exclusively without specialization is not competitive in today's pre-professional world," said Nikhil Trivedi, a recent graduate of Princeton University. Specialization is integral to finding and succeeding on the first job. From a macro-economic perspective, the United States increasingly faces challenges to global dominance. China, Brazil and India now have more workers with technical degrees than the United States does, and those workers power their countries' global competitiveness, said Trivedi.

"We are not saying that a liberal arts education is useless, but we are saying that a liberal arts exclusive education without specialization is not what is competitive in today's world," said Raleigh Allison, a recent graduate of Princeton. "Specialization is necessary in being prepared and succeeding on the first job. We say this even realizing that firms have on-the-job training."

On the other hand, a liberal arts education "creates a more informed and, therefore, more open-minded citizenry" and "conscientious leaders of a forward-thinking nation," argued Eric Blair-Joannou '10. The liberal arts, he said, also foster critical thinking and lay a foundation for understanding the world.

America outsources service-level jobs to China and India, said Zain Pasha '11, who said a liberal arts education is always necessary: "Our argument is that pre-professional education is not a sufficient condition for success in today's world. You need a liberal arts education, understanding politics to understand oil prices, understanding psychology for product design and understanding entrepreneurship about how we achieve success in the world. All these things are liberal arts based."

Dorothy Chan '12 is an intern writer for the Cornell Chronicle.