Dirges about the professionalization of the liberal arts education can be as romantic as they are unoriginal, not to mention as frequent. The spirited defense of the liberal arts curriculum—often a code word for the humanities—as an object to be pursued independently of and, occasionally, at the expense of professional interests, has become a bustling genre of its own. Duke’s own contribution to this genre, the freshly minted Intellectual Climate Committee Report, adds a new twist to the old form: professional pursuits don’t just distract from intellectual ones, they can even erode the intellectual experience in the classroom and on the quad.
We believe that these observations are spot on, but are likely to provoke a confused and negative response. After all, we all need to spend time thinking about our credentials. The world is full of sober and bleary-eyed human resource officers, so the story goes, who spend their hours paging through piles of resumes in search of just those candidates with precisely the right work experience, extracurriculars and major/minor combinations. If we want to participate in this world—and to pay off our student loans—we have to play the game to a certain extent, which isn’t so bad anyway because we’re working toward a professional life we’ve presumably chosen for its rewarding qualities. So why, we might wonder, does the report pathologize the necessary and—when done in moderation—even healthy practice of credentialism and insist it detracts from the intellectual life?
The answer lies in an overly narrow definition of credentialism. According to the ICC, 51% of students want more of an intellectual experience than they are getting. We will put a dent in that number by understanding that credentialism comes in many shapes and flavors, and that its more flexible forms—which we indeed encourage—are not just compatible with a rich intellectual life, but can enhance it.
The ICC defines credentialism to be anti-intellectual by its very nature. Take its report’s principle example: that obsession with credentials leads students to avoid challenging classes in favor of higher, more easily attained grades and, thus, better career options. Credentialism, as the ICC has defined it, always exists at the expense of the true intellectual culture.
However, true credentialism, as we have pointed out, can actually provide another outlet for intellectual activity. We can be concerned with preening our professional feathers, but we can also imbue our interest in the professions with intellectual activity. In tomorrow’s editorial, we will explore how Duke can bring credentialism and intellectualism closer together.
However, opportunities to merge professional and intellectual interests exist even now. The Duke Colloquium sponsors a series of speakers that address the role of the humanities in the professions. Even quotidian pursuits hold intellectual potential: we can take courses that interest us, avoid unnecessary majors and minors, and find the interesting gems of knowledge in the blow-off classes we take to fluff up our GPAs. In the long run, richer minds will hopefully make us richer professionals.
Ultimately, we need to step outside of these concerns and pursue intellectual life for its own sake. On this point, we can only throw our two cents in with the dirges: read a book before you go bed.