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Commentary: Knapp, Strong on W&L's Uncommon Curriculum

The following opinion piece appeared in The Hechinger Report,  a nonprofit news organization focused on producing in-depth education journalism on Aug. 6, 2013. It is reprinted here with permission.

Liberal arts and pre-professional education, intertwined

By Elizabeth Knapp and Robert Strong

Oil and water, cats and dogs, liberal arts and pre-professional education. Lots of things don’t go together. Or so we are told.

But assumptions about compatibility can sometimes be wrong and most rules have exceptions.

At our university, Washington and Lee, there is a long-standing and successful association between traditional studies in the liberal arts and sciences and pre-professional programs in journalism, accounting, business and engineering. The association is an old one that some date to the post Civil War college presidency of Robert E. Lee and others to the early decades of the 20th century. Whichever date you choose, Washington and Lee has had both liberal education and pre-professional training for a very long time in an institutional environment that allows both to prosper.

Because of this long history, we don’t have many serious disputes and debates about the fundamentals of curricular content. Our curriculum, like all others, evolves over time but there is no expectation that we will abandon either our commitment to the liberal arts or to our pre-professional programs. Our current arrangements have the benefits of age, but longevity is but a small part of our story and our success. Here are some of the key elements.

Serious general education

At W&L we have a large set of general education requirements, much larger than those at many peer institutions. Our requirements include courses in writing, math, foreign language, science, literature, arts, social science, the humanities and physical education. Those courses occupy the better part of the first two years of study, and most are delivered by the traditional liberal arts and science departments. No student leaves without a substantial sampling of the ideas and disciplines that constitute the core of a conventional liberal education. The pre-professional departments accept that they can make only a marginal contribution to this important aspect of our curriculum and that the study of their subjects appropriately comes later in a college career.

Modest requirements for majors

Requirements at W&L, whether for majors in the liberal arts or in pre-professional education, are kept relatively modest — with no majors for the BA degree involving more than 50 credits and many majors with fewer. This is important for two reasons: Students have plenty of time to complete their general education explorations and they have flexibility to pursue multiple interests. More than a third of our students have two majors. Many pursue a minor along with one or two majors. It is not uncommon for a business major to have a second field of study in a modern foreign language or for a student of history to have a second major in journalism. Among the most popular minors are mathematics, Latin American and Caribbean studies and a special program providing an interdisciplinary examination of poverty.

Mutual respect

Modest requirements for majors and many choices for minors allow students to make their own creative combinations and links between closely related or disparate intellectual interests. Faculty advisers support that creativity and do not demand or mandate narrow study within a single discipline.

For example, Creative Writing is one our most popular minors and many of these students are Business Administration majors. We attribute this success to the revision of the Business major to include electives in the arts. These students then, in turn, make good candidates for work in advertising and marketing.

The differences between the liberal arts and pre-professional education are often exaggerated. Both aim to equip students with skills in analysis and communication that can be used in a variety of employment settings and careers. Both challenge students to do independent research and writing as well as group activities that provide collaborative experiences. Both deliver specific syllabi with broad objectives. Both have high expectations for the future accomplishments of current students. Pre-professional education can be an enhancement of a liberal education without becoming a substitute for it. And, in many ways, the liberal arts always have provided a generic pre-professional training for unanticipated professions.

George Washington, in a letter to a prospective college student, once observed that the college years provide a unique and valuable time “when the mind will be turned to things useful and praiseworthy.” Things “useful” and things “praiseworthy:” This is not a bad way to describe the categories of study that always have been important in American higher education. At one institution that bears Washington’s name, they still are.

Elizabeth Knapp ’90 and Robert Strong are professors of geology and politics at Washington and Lee, respectively. Knapp teaches in the College, Strong in the Williams School of Commerce, Economics and Politics. For the last two years Knapp served as Associate Provost and Strong as Interim Provost at W&L