A Trade Off? Liberal Learning & Professional Skills

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Source: Ashoka

Last week, Tom Ehrlich—Professor at the Stanford School of Education and formerly Senior Scholar at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching—shared insights from his forthcoming book Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession as part of Ashoka U’s expert webinar series for Changemaker Campus faculty, administrators, and student leaders.

Ehrlich described an unfortunate but unsurprising paradox in higher education. Though liberal learning is known to foster creativity and innovative thinking—essential skills for future entrepreneurs—liberal learning has been “short-changed for more instrumental approaches,” particularly in vocational fields like business, nursing, engineering, and education.

What’s the harm in this trade-off—between liberal education and pre-professional training? Students often enter college or university pre-committed to future careers and demand courses that will efficiently advance them towards their aspirations. Colleges and universities—in an effort to meet this demand—have supplied the requisite courses to equip them with some essential skills but not others. Taking this short-run approach, colleges and universities risk becoming  manufacturing facilities for the production of high-end credentials rather than key social institutions that cultivate human ingenuity and foster the next generation of civic and professional leaders—the changemakers and social entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

In five years at Duke, I’ve witnessed slow but steady institutional change towards increased emphasis on civic engagement and social entrepreneurship—in an organic effort among stakeholders working from the top-down and the bottom-up. In shifting strategic priorities for Duke, top leaders outlined a new path to “apply knowledge in the service of society.”

Glimmers of hope appear on the student demand side also. Simultaneous to official efforts, students work against the clock (i.e., looming graduation dates) to influence institutional infrastructures and complement academic programs to better serve cohorts over the long-run. The Duke Microfinance Leadership Initiative (DMLI), for example, created a “living laboratory” for exploring the complexity of international development—empowering students to raise capital, select partner NGOs, disperse funds, and follow up on grants in the field (Nkokonjeru, Uganda).

If institutions of higher education want to play a role in educating future changemakers and social entrepreneurs, institutional leadership must be concerned with not only meeting students’ professional demands but also shaping the inner fiber of individuals—who may be entering universities with already-closed minds and hardened hearts.  As a social entrepreneur, service-learning educator and hopeful future professor, I hold as my charge the goal of awakening the slumbering consciousness and ethical compass within my students—numbed from marching the predictable path toward professional credential attainment—and to spark a fire within them to become creative thinkers, innovative problem-solvers and inspired change-agents


Shana Starobin is a Duke Ph.D. candidate and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Development, with research interests in institutional innovation, rural livelihoods, and food security. A co-founder of the Duke Microfinance Leadership Initiative (DMLI), she has more than ten years of experience organizing and facilitating experiential education and service-learning programs in the U.S. and internationally.