This is a provocation, pro-vocation.
Until recently, there was a rule buried deep within the College section of the Undergraduate Bulletin, a rule obscure enough that you would have been unlikely to encounter it until you violated it: “No more than four pre-professional courses may be counted towards the degree, unless required within a declared major or minor.” A bit of archival research in John Q. Pierce’s library confirms that this particular regulation had been on the books since 1976, the only substantial change having come quite recently, when the final clause was added to acknowledge that students pursuing the new College minor in business administration would be not only permitted but required to take five or six McDonough School of Business courses. Otherwise, this limit on the amount of space given over to the strictly pre-professional within the liberal arts curriculum of the College had remained largely unchanged.
I want to say, first and foremost, that I believe deeply in this rule, or at least in the reasoning behind it. My own undergraduate education was so rich and rewarding, so troubling and transformational, that I would not have been willing to give up a single one of those courses in exchange for anything more … mercenary. I use the word “mercenary” rather than “practical” in order to be provocative, sure, but especially because the latter does not fit. Much of what I learned in undergraduate classrooms changed not just the way I think about the world but the way I (try to) live my life. But even if I know that I believe in it, I am not sure that I know what it means and I wonder if we have ever known what we mean(t) by “pre-professional.” There is a certain irony here, because the fact that you are reading this is one indication that my own undergraduate education was, in a sense, pre-professional: On a basic level, I make my living (strange phrase!) working at a university; on another level, the etymology of the word “professional” links it historically to religious senses of “profession” (of faith) and here I am, declaring publicly that what I believe in, above almost all else, is the transformative power of a liberal arts education and its ability to change the ways in which we both think about and act in the world. It is “as if profession, linked more to the liberal and nonmercenary arts, implied a pledge of responsibility freely declared, very nearly under oath — in a word, professed,” writes the late Jacques Derrida in an essay on “the university without condition.” Every class that I took as an undergraduate led me toward this kind of profession. Is this what we had or have in mind?
Back to the Bulletin: Last fall, as I was searching for an answer to a student’s question, that language suddenly struck me as strange, unhelpful and even hypocritical. Isn’t it contradictory to imply that the bulk of the courses taken toward our degree (should) have no direct connection to one’s professional goals, given that we are now in the habit, as evidenced by several of the pieces in this series, of making the case for a liberal arts education as perfectly good preparation for professional success, with future earnings as (only) one marker of that success? Now, but also always: the Bulletin has always made clear (in 1976 as in 2014) that the College is committed to the assumption of responsibility and action — which is another way of defining the (pre-) “professional.” So I bugged my colleagues and we ultimately agreed to new Bulletin language, fresh for 2015: “No more than six courses from the McDonough School of Business may be counted toward the degree.” This is in some ways an easy way out, with business courses serving as a convenient other for our liberal arts curriculum. And, of course, the ban is likely to produce even more desire for the banned object. More important, editing out the “pre-professional” lets us off the hook, allowing us to avoid hard questions about the relationship between school and work, the university and the world outside. And this at a time when the acceleration of transformations in the global economy — the casualization of so many forms of labor — ought to obligate those of us with the privilege of thinking in “professional” terms to think even more seriously about the nature of work, the right to work, the relationship between work and dignity.
This is also a plea: for space — and not only metaphorical — for the humanities in a redesigned university, perhaps in the form of an interdisciplinary Humanities Center. A university that experiments with new work/learn models without creating spaces for thinking about the meanings attached to, inter alia, the concept of work (alternatively, travail and transcendence) would devalue (y)our degree and impoverish (y)our education, rendering it worth less.
Joe Napolitano is an assistant dean at Georgetown College. He is one of the alternating writers for The Dean’s Desk, which appears every other Tuesday.