A Call for Philosopher-Servants
Liberal Arts and Professional Education: A Call for Philosopher-Servants
Steven Bahls, President of Augustana College
You see, then, here are two methods of Education; the end of the one is to be philosophical, of the other to be mechanical, the one rises toward general ideas, the other is exhausted upon what is particular and external. Let me not be thought to deny the necessity, or to decry the benefit, of such attention to what is particular and practical, as belongs to the useful or mechanical arts; life could not go on without them … I only say that Knowledge, in proportion as it tends more and more to be particular, ceases to be Knowledge. John Henry Cardinal Newman (85)
The role of professional education within the context of the liberal arts, which has been the subject of debate for centuries, is taking on new urgency. Leaders in many professions are openly questioning whether recent graduates are sufficiently prepared to address the evolving role of the professions in a changing world.
John Henry Cardinal Newman's argument, made 150 years ago (about the time many of our Lutheran colleges were founded), has as much force today as it did then. Cardinal Newman observed that if professional education loses its philosophical character, it ceases to pursue true knowledge. I believe that professional education has departed from its philosophical center. Today's world will be well-served when colleges and universities strike a better balance between mastery of the knowledge base and contemplating the more value-laden questions the professions face about their roles in the larger world. It is particularly fitting to discuss the connection between professional education and the liberal arts at Lutheran colleges, which have long recognized that liberal arts and professional education can flourish together and strengthen each other.
I have viewed the interplay between liberal arts education and professional education from several vantage points: as a practicing lawyer, as a law school professor and dean, and now as a liberal arts college president. These experiences have led me to the conclusion that an important role of undergraduate institutions is to help tomorrow's professionals maintain their philosophical center.
To build my case, I will first explore how well higher education is preparing students for their vocational calling as professionals, whether as pastors, teachers, doctors, business professionals, lawyers or others. Second, I will argue that undergraduate education can better prepare students for the professions by encouraging our students to explore their vocational callings and aspire to be "philosopher-servants." And finally I'll describe a few ways that liberal arts colleges, especially Lutheran colleges, might rethink their relationship to professional education.
How well does higher education prepare students within the professions?
Several years ago, I was commissioned by the American Bar Association to conduct a national study of how well law schools prepare students for the legal profession. To do so, I borrowed from the scholarship of
- Knowledge base of the profession
- Application of the knowledge base to address concrete problems
- Professional skills demanded by the profession (in the case of the legal profession: negotiation skills, interpersonal skills, advocacy skills)
- Understanding of the role of the profession in society
- Personal qualities essential to practicing the profession (in the case of the legal profession: integrity, industry, judgment, determination)1 (Bahls, preparing 63).
The five attributes that I surveyed ranged from primarily knowledge-based to primarily values-based. As you might expect, when law students were asked how their law schools did with respect to these attributes, many said they were prepared well for the knowledge-based attributes, relatively poorly for the skills-based attributes and very poorly for the values-based attributes. Here are the percentages of law students who believe that their law school did well or very well with respect to the following attributes:
- Knowledge of legal rules - 71.3%
- The ability to apply legal rules and procedures to address concrete legal problems - 61.3%
- The ability to use lawyer skills effectively (e.g. negotiation skills, client counseling skills, trial advocacy skills) - 44.8%
- An understanding of the role of laws and lawyers in society - 44.5%
- The ability to use personal qualities essential to practicing law (e.g. integrity, industry, judgment, determination) - 34.6%
Law schools are not alone in doing a better job helping their students master a knowledge base than preparing them to grapple with the values-based questions of their professions.
In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Warren Bennis and James O'Toole, both professors at the
What's needed is a major shift in engineering education's "center of gravity," which has moved virtually not at all … Today's student-engineers not only need to acquire the skills of their predecessors but many more, and in broader areas. As the world becomes more complex, engineers must appreciate more than ever the human dimensions of technology, have a grasp of the panoply of global issues, be sensitive to cultural diversity, and know how to communicate effectively. In short, they must be far more versatile than the traditional stereotype of the asocial geek (Wulf and Fisher 35).
Whatever the profession, the most thoughtful educators I know argue that much more needs to be done to help students think about the values of a profession and the role of the professional in today's changing world. Failure to explore the values and roles of the professions and ask students how these mesh with their values and expectations is part of a larger failure by many professional schools to engage students in meaningful vocational reflection. This has had the result of an extraordinary level of mismatch between what our students expect from professional jobs and what they experience. According to a survey conducted by Interim Legal Services, a majority of lawyers placed in law firms (56%), "will most likely start looking for jobs within two years." A National Association of Law Placement study shows more than 70% of attorneys in
And yet such disappointment is not limited to recent graduates. Law Professor Susan Daicoff, formerly from
The problem is not limited to the legal profession. Dr. Abigail Zuger recently shed light on physician dissatisfaction in The New England Journal of Medicine. Citing several surveys, she finds that between 40% and 48% of doctors (depending on the survey) "would not recommend the profession of medicine to a qualifying college student." The level of doctor discontent should be of particular concern. She reminds us that "data suggest…dissatisfaction on the part of physicians breeds poor clinical management, as well as dissatisfaction and noncompliance among patients, and that the rapid turnover of unhappy doctors in offices and hospitals may lead to discontinuous, substandard care" (Zuger 69). While often blamed on managed care or the malpractice crisis, the real source of the dissatisfaction, Dr. Zuger argues, can be found in "disparate expectations." As an example she cites the disparity between the "standards set by doctors' training and the compromises forced by practice." She believes the key to "restoring a sense of contentment to the medical profession may lie in the hands of educators who encourage students to have more accurate expectations of a medical career" than in prior years. While Dr. Zuger does not use the words "vocational calling" or "vocational reflection," the substance of her conclusion involves just that - educators must help doctors align their practice with their vocational calling.
Does this lack of satisfaction extend to most professions? I believe so. One only needs to attend five- and ten-year reunions of virtually any college or university. A common refrain from recent alumni is that their chosen careers or employers were a mismatch with their expectations, their values and their other obligations. While most make the appropriate adjustments and reexamine (often with a new sense of urgency) their vocational calling, a significant number do not. Those who do not often remain trapped in a poorly matched career, sometimes because pride, lack of courage or heavy financial obligations stand in the way of career change.
The combination of high levels of dissatisfaction and the difficulty professionals have in integrating their own value structures with their professions creates an opportunity for higher education to think creatively in addressing the problem. The solution, I believe, lies in colleges and universities training students to think of a professional career within a larger vocational calling, and challenging them to structure their professional lives accordingly.
We are, in many ways, both a master of and slave to our values. As part of the process of discerning our calling and reflecting on our vocation, we must develop values (or master values) and live by them (or be a slave to them). Too many professionals become slaves to values they perceive to be the norms within their professions. Though autonomous beings, they cede the important task of commanding their values, at least in the workplace, to their professions. We in higher education must encourage students to be the master of their values, before they become the slave to their professions' perceived values. We can do so by helping our students understand how they can use their skills, gifts and passions, as well as their own views of morality and appropriate conduct, both within their profession and in service to society. There is a two-fold problem among the professions - professionals with an amoral stance and professionals who don't receive much satisfaction from their career's calling. What can educators do about it?
Preparing Professionals Who Are Philosopher-Servants
I believe the best way to encourage our students to avoid an "amoral professional role" - while at the same time increasing their satisfaction with their profession - is to encourage them to become what I call "philosopher-servants," a blending of the established paradigms of the philosopher-king and the servant-leader. First, consider the philosopher-king. In Plato's The Republic, Socrates said that the ideal society can "never grow into a reality or see the light of day and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or…of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers" (Plato Rep 473.E). When I first read this during my college years, it seemed preposterous. Aren't those in positions of power pragmatists and not philosophers? My initial response mirrored that of Socrates' student, who replied, "My dear Socrates, if you produce theories of that sort, you can't be surprised if most decent people take their coats off, pick up the nearest weapon, and come after you in their shirt sleeves to do something terrible to you." (Plato Rep 474.A). Socrates himself admitted that he hesitated to raise the concept of philosopher-kings, noting how paradoxical it would be.
Socrates' idea of philosopher-kings didn't get much traction. My experience has shown that few academic philosophers aspire to national leadership positions. Likewise, our nation's leaders often seem to be guided more by hastily formed opinions than by philosophical reflection. Observing this, philosopher Immanuel Kant observed, "It is not to be expected that kings will philosophize or that philosophers will become kings; nor is it to be desired, since the possession of power inevitably corrupts the free judgment of reason" (Reiss 115).
Is that necessarily so? Is the possession of power always caustic to the exercise of reason? I don't accept the dismal outlook that all leaders are bound to fail because power, of necessity, overthrows reason. I submit that when those who would lead combine reason with a commitment to being servant-leaders, then they are prepared to address tomorrow's problems. They do so because they possess both reason and compassion. Robert Greenleaf, who taught at both MIT and Harvard, is one of the most influential modern authors on this subject. He wrote:
The servant-leader is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead… [Servant-leaders ask how] those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? (Greenleaf 7)
When I think of philosopher-servants, I think of Murry Gerber, who graduated from
Encouraging students to adopt the mindset of a philosopher-servant is consistent with, and perhaps the essence of, Lutheran higher education. Though he does not use the term "philosopher-servants," Capital University Professor Tom Christiansen elaborates on the essence of why servants should be philosophers in his recent book, The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education:
More than anything else we, as human beings, need to be critical of our own abstractions, particularly of all those abstractions that claim ultimacy … In every aspect of our lives we are presented with partial truths that are promoted as the whole truth, abstractions presented to us as reality, images that are given to us as norms. We must in every case ask the hard, critical questions (Christensen 80-81).
Philosopher-servants not only ask the hard critical, questions, they ask how to put their answers into action, with an eye toward serving others. What would happen if today's leaders were true philosopher-servants? Consider the current chaos in the
The Role of Lutheran Colleges in Preparing Philosopher-Servants.
What might Lutheran colleges do to better prepare tomorrow's professionals to be philosopher-servants? Lutheran colleges have traditionally been the strongest supporters of a liberal arts education, but most have a growing number of students majoring in professional programs rather than the traditional liberal arts. A few professors I know who teach in the classic liberal disciplines question whether colleges such as those related to the ELCA should put so much money and effort into pre-professional training. Can (and should) strong liberal arts colleges, they ask, also have strong pre-professional programs? Dr. Mark Schwehn, from
The knowledge that integrates, that enables the knower to see life whole, and that enlarges the mind, is the same knowledge that is part of the cultivation of good judgment and practical wisdom and that leads directly to the kind of resourcefulness that makes for good leaders in politics and commerce as much as in the academy. Indeed, much of the knowledge most worth having becomes a true possession, truly incorporated into the knower, if and only if it is put to use in the service of others (Schwehn 219). Schwehn's views are largely consistent with the view set forth by Cardinal Newman in 1854. In writing about the relationship of theology to knowledge, Newman made a forceful and eloquent case that knowledge is valuable for its own end. He said that those educated in the liberal arts "apprehend the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shade, its great points and its little … A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom" (Newman 76).
We know this to be true today. People, who have an active "life of the mind" live longer, are happier and have healthier relationships. Newman recognized, however, "that the training of the intellect, which is best for the individual itself, best enables him to discharge his duties to our society." He argued that a citizenry educated in the liberal arts and sciences is important in "raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspirations, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life" (Newman 134).
Newman also spoke of the relationship between a liberal arts education and professional training. He was correct in cautioning that professional training is not the "sufficient end" of a liberal education. Newman understood, as we understand, that professional education, when offered within the context of other studies, has an appropriate place. He says "that a cultivated intellect, because it is good in itself, brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes." He cautions professors in professional programs to view their disciplines "from a height" - meaning professions should be viewed within the larger "survey of all knowledge," thereby allowing professional studies to gain from other disciplines "a special illumination and largeness of mind and freedom and self possession" (Newman 126). Jaroslav Pelikan elaborated on
Newman's views in his more recent book, The Idea of the University: A Reexamination. He noted that in order "to qualify as a profession, an occupation or activity must involve some traditions of critical philosophical reflection." Training for professions, it follows, is best within the context of the liberal arts so that "training is informed by…reflection" and "can be carried on in its full intellectual context" (Pelikan 108). Newman's views about higher education were presented about the time many of our oldest ELCA colleges were founded. But they remain true today. As liberal arts colleges we must develop students who will be philosopher-servants by, as Newman would say, viewing professions from a height; while incorporating, as Pelikan would have it, critical philosophical reflection.
But isn't the job of helping professionals become philosopher-servants really up to the professions or to professional schools? Isn't our role to focus on undergraduate education within the context of the liberal arts? Perhaps. But we must do more. Experience shows that we can't rely on either the professions or professional school to challenge students to become philosopher-servants.
As a young lawyer, I recall the senior partner in my
Can we rely on professional schools and graduate programs to give students the background and the encouragement to be philosopher-servants? I don't think so. In their book, Something to Believe In: Politics, Professionalism and Cause Lawyering, Professor Stuart A. Scheingold and Austin Sarat describe how inclinations toward public interest lawyering drop off dramatically during students' three years in law school, even in those schools with a mission to prepare public interest lawyers. (Scheingold and Sarat 54-56) My own experience was that most of my peers entered law school with the intent of using their careers to serve society through the pursuit of justice. That desire seemed to diminish by the final year of law school, as many sought top-paying jobs, in part because the debt we accumulated as law students would permit little else.
What becomes of the commitment to justice and service which we, as undergraduate educators, help our students bring with them to law school? Scheingold and Sarat write that it is neither fostered nor advanced. Instead, they hold that many law schools take budding philosopher-servants and turn them into unimaginative pragmatists:
Yet law students may not lose their ideals during their legal education: instead, moral ideals and political commitments are exiled to the private realm and replaced by ideals that are intrinsic to legal practices … Law students discover "an ideology of pragmatism." They learn that insofar as they inject their personal moral judgments into cases they confuse matters still further - and to no avail (Scheingold and Sarat 58-59).
Whatever values and sense of morality students bring with them into law school, then, soon take a back seat to more value-neutral, pragmatic views of the profession. This problem, I believe, is not limited to law schools, but extends to most professions and most professional schools.
Enron and the other corporate scandals of the last ten years amply illustrate how many corporations could have benefited from philosopher-servants at the helm. A few years ago I read a book that I can't stop thinking about. Bethany McLean and Peter Elkin's The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron tells a story of incredible wealth, greed and arrogance. But, at the same time, many of those Enron executives we saw on TV in handcuffs were, in most respects, good citizens and professed Christians. Most were loving spouses, fiercely devoted to their families. They were active in community improvement. Some were scoutmasters and soccer coaches. They were regarded as role models and community leaders. And they were "the smartest guys in the room." They reconceptualized the energy business in important ways-ways which could have helped make energy less expensive while at the same time providing enhanced returns to shareholders.
Sadly, these Enron executives, notwithstanding their many good attributes, were corrupted by greed to such an extent that they developed two sets of values - one for home and one for work. They failed to engage in continuing vocational reflection. Typically they started at Enron with the admirable goals of serving their community, serving society by creating jobs and streamlining how energy was distributed and marketed in the
The most effective way to encourage students to become philosopher-servants within the professions is to encourage them to engage in a meaningful process of vocational reflection before they are tempted by greed or status. The probability that a student will become a true philosopher-servant within his or her profession is maximized if the student's career is an extension of the student's vocational calling. Such is the case, I believe, with students who accurately assess their values, passions and skills, and then connect with a profession that allows for their advancement.
In order to encourage this process, we need to challenge students interested in the professions to take the following steps:
Reflection. Students should reflect on their motivations for being a professional, asking how and why they can advance the values they hold dear. Much of this reflection is to help students question the assumptions they bring with them about a particular career. It is a rare high school senior who doesn't have a career picked out. As educators, we need to help students take a fresh look at these early career choices, all through the lens of vocational reflection. Part of reflection is to encourage students to reject misguided senses of duty they might owe to someone else (often a parent) to join a particular profession.
Assessment. Students headed into the professions must thoughtfully assess the gifts they possess that might be useful in their chosen profession. An accurate assessment of one's gifts includes an accurate assessment of one's limitations. Students also need to assess the values they hold dear, question those values and - if the values hold up under questioning-strengthen those values. And we must encourage students to use the college years to explore what they are passionate about. Finding and pursuing passions often requires students to step outside of their comfort zones.
Vision. This process also entails developing a vocational vision, which means ascertaining how students' gifts, strengths and passions might best be used in their calling as a professional. Are the values of the profession compatible with their values? Usually, this is a mixed bag. If some of the values of the profession are compatible and some aren't, how will this impact the student's career choice? How will the student be able to hold fast to her or his values within the profession? For many, creating a vocational vision will be more than an intellectual exercise; it will also be a spiritual one.
Integration of career into other roles. It is crucial to assess how one's role as a professional will complement and integrate other roles - as a family member and a member of the community. This step is, of course, never-ending, as is the need to revisit the entire process throughout one's life.
Faculty members need to take a leadership role in insuring that there are ample opportunities for vocational reflection and that students clearly understand the distinction between vocational reflection and career selection. Here are a few ways that I believe liberal arts colleges can help students engage in meaningful vocational reflection.
View professions from a height. How does a business administration major (or any other pre-professional major) at a liberal arts college differ from the same major at a state school? One distinction ought to be that our colleges make more deliberate efforts to view professions from higher altitude. We must challenge our students, regardless of major, to take on the role of a philosopher. We must help them learn to ask the tough questions. To ask the impertinent questions. To reject rules-of-thumb, hastily-formed opinions and simple solutions. To bring all the critical thinking, the integrative thinking and the creative thinking they can to every problem they encounter. We need to encourage students to pause, to step back from a problem, and to consider it from different angles and to do so with the attitude of a philosopher and determination of a servant.
Be explicit about the importance of vocational reflection. Students need to be reminded that professional education is properly viewed as a journey, not simply a means to an end. The journey is a process in which students need to invest themselves fully, and with which we must provide ample opportunity for students to assess their gifts and reflect on how those gifts can be used to benefit society. I caution students not to select a career within a profession too quickly. Vocational reflection is a necessary predicate of selecting the appropriate career and employment setting. Many faculty members have been quite deliberate in their own vocational reflection, often deciding to forego financially lucrative positions to join the academy. Sharing the importance of meaningful vocational reflection (and our own paths of vocational reflection) is a gift we are privileged to give our students.
Integrate opportunities for vocational reflection into the curriculum. Sadly, for many students, if something is not part of the curriculum, it is not important. At Augustana, we are in the process of developing a Senior Inquiry program that most, if not all, of our students will complete as a condition of graduation. This program differs from the more traditional senior capstone program in that its substance - whether as guided research, artistic creation or community engagement, must be accompanied by reflection on one or more of the following:
- The nature of knowledge and inquiry
- Self-awareness and connection with others
- The relationship of individuals to a community
Our new strategic plan at Augustana is centered around developing the resources necessary to implement the Senior Inquiry program across all departments.
Involve the career services office. Vocational reflection programs and career services offices should not be viewed by students as separate entities with distinct missions. Whether the process of discerning a vocation is a spiritual or intellectual exercise (or a combination of both), career services offices can help students reflect. At
Augustana College, we are working hard to coordinate services between the Career Center and the Center for Vocation Reflection. These efforts have added to the depth of programming offered by both Centers. As another example, the Capital University Law School's Career Services Office has offered the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory and counseled students about how to interpret its results as part of career and vocational reflection. Because mentoring programs with clear goals are valuable to students in the reflection process, Capital students are also encouraged not only to talk with their mentors about their career choice, but also to engage in a dialog with mentors about who they would like to be.
Finally, how might the contents of today's newspapers differ if those pragmatists and fanatics who are making the headlines were philosopher-servants? Surely the world would be a better place. We have extraordinary opportunities in Lutheran higher education to help our students not only lead more fulfilling lives, but help others to do so as well. Such philosopher-servants have the potential to change their communities, and perhaps the course of history, for the better.
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1 These attributes are adapted from John Mudd's work. Mudd did not expressly identify the fifth attribute, though it is implicit in the third and fourth attributes he did identify.