Toward Curriculum Clarity and Career Connection in Higher Education

The liberal arts core is a rich source of self-discovery for students, but in today's economy educators must help students connect the personal values that they develop with outcomes that will put them on a path to navigate the job market.
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The beginning of higher education in America coincided with the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, and since then, the undergraduate higher education curriculum has continued to reflect the elements of this movement, most notably through courses in the classics, philosophy, history, and literature, among other disciplines. The liberal arts core is a rich source of learning and self-discovery for students, but in today's economy educators must help students connect the personal values that they develop with outcomes that will put them on a path to navigate the job market that they will enter by design and by necessity after college.

In an effort to integrate the career-planning process into the overall educational experiences of students, we at Stevenson have begun to distill the elements of an effective education as part of a broader mosaic. There are several elements that help students clarify values for life and for careers, including curriculum selection, which often includes arts and humanities, as well as a tri-partite focus on theory, practice, and mentoring.

Connecting Values and Careers

An effective education should help students identify and define values for life. This is the primary benefit of the arts and humanities because it helps us formulate a philosophy related to self, to life, and to others. Career education can be integrated with this by helping students identify how personal values influence career selection. For example, it makes a difference in a profession whether or not a student values contribution or integrity versus achievement and independence. The articulation of these critical values must be explicitly addressed in the career counseling process.

Yet in the 21st century, the emphasis on core curriculum values alone will not be adequate for career guidance as has always been the case in professional education. Historically, it was believed that if the major was properly identified and taught, the rest of a student's life would be clear and secure. The selection of majors can range from philosophy, history, and religion to medical technology, accounting, and computer science. As long as the academic discipline is explicitly connected to life and career values, the education of the student will be dynamic and meaningful. In the past, we counted on the post-graduate experience to make these connections. Today's competitive and dynamic employment market does not permit the luxury. These connections should happen as part and parcel of the undergraduate experience so we do not leave our students adrift once they graduate.

Theory, Practice and Mentoring

Any effective education can only be shaped by filtering the discipline through theory, practice, and mentoring. Significant developments in science and medicine and technology in the 20th century have shown that we need to go beyond theories alone. This is especially true in medicine, where surgeons can only be effectively trained by exposing them to theory in their coursework and practice in the operating room where they are mentored by an experienced surgeon. These educational practices also need to be present in the undergraduate curriculum.

At Stevenson, we have applied this approach to traditional liberal arts programs. Our public history degree is a strong example. This major allows students to explore the important principles and values identified through a study of history in the liberal arts and then connect them to practice. We add additional perspective by helping a student identify the fact that learning and social transformation are important career values as well. The study of history alone, although excellent for understanding life and personal values, does not really lend itself to action and social transformation -- it must be connected to practice and to mentors experienced in the field. For this reason, we add various experiences in documentary production, museum and archival work, historic preservation, and community education in order to help students connect the theory with practice and demonstrate how history as a profession serves the greater public good.

Higher education needs to work more diligently to bring together the best of what we have in the liberal arts with the knowledge we have gained from the professions during the past 100 years. By merging liberal arts with career development and using the powerful filter of theory, practice, and mentoring, we can better prepare students to make meaningful contributions to their careers and, when necessary, completely reinvent themselves through their knowledge of their own deep-seated core values and their subsequent ability to act on them.

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