Pre-professional programs may be flowers, not weeds

Dr. Randy VanderMey, Professor of English

To the Editor of the Horizon:

It was my pleasure to be consulted by one of your reporters for a recent article on Westmont’s new pre-professional programs. I appreciate the paper’s attention to the question of whether such programs advance, dilute, or misdirect our traditional devotion to the cause of Christian liberal arts education.

I was quoted accurately in the article, and yet, without fuller context, I’m afraid I might appear to some readers as a part of an embattled old guard, suspicious of large donations and skeptical about innovations in program and curriculum. I might appear to be insufficiently appreciative of the courage, foresight, creativity, and resourcefulness it took to launch these programs.

I do want all of us — students, faculty, administration, board, and constituents — to keep a wary eye on our fundamental premises. There are more ways to betray our rich traditions than to honor them. At the same time, concerning these programs, I don’t mean to come down as a skeptic or an obstructionist.

Should Westmont branch out into certification programs in areas such as engineering and nursing that are often thought of as pre-professional and narrower in method and purpose than the liberal arts? As I indicated in the article, without its historic mission as a residential, undergraduate, Christian liberal arts college, Westmont might be able to survive, but there would be no special need for it, and the world would not greatly miss it if it disappeared. I wouldn’t want programs to appear just because “the money was there.” But if a program is warranted by our mission, the money to fund it needs to be found.

Having programs in engineering and nursing, I believe, will not necessarily compromise the mission of the college, especially when a certification program here in this city or in San Francisco is designed as a post-graduate program, a kind of para-curricular opportunity, or as an extension of the kind of education that Westmont has historically provided. Such education could be seen as a robust expansion of the reach of the college into the application of learning, just as we’ve begun to do already in our recent emphasis on community-based internships as a complement to classroom learning.

I love the idea that a generation of engineers or nurses who come through our programs would enter the professional world with a grounding in history, attunement to literature and the arts, sturdy theological foundations, a concern with political and sociological influences and impacts, habits of philosophical reflection, and practices of faith.

I’ve heard these ideals articulated in the presentation of plans before the Faculty Senate, and I believe they are shared by those in the College’s Board and Administration. Being high-flown, such ideals may be easily compromised, but then, so is every other major dimension of our academic program and community life.

Through vigilance and dedication and renewal of our vision, the College, to its credit, has managed to keep those ideals alive and embodied. To keep it going requires active involvement and unanimous commitment by the faculty, a strong and trusted provost, and an effective administration and staff, all of whom serve that vision.

I’m not led by fear, but I could imagine several dangers — and these are hypothetical. One fear is that a legion of pre-professional programs would be a kind of Trojan horse, from whose hollow belly were released legions of destructive agents during the night. In the sacking of Troy, the Trojan horse got entrance to the city only through the facilitation of priests, rationalizing advocates. We need to know that the advocates of our programs are well-informed, in tune with the mission of the College, and dedicated to fulfilling that mission through proportional means.

What might be hiding in the Trojan horse? Perhaps a new means of external control over the college by state or federal government, philanthropies, banks, politicians, or commercial interests. Perhaps a spirit that is ultimately utilitarian, or merely pragmatic. Perhaps a view of students that sees them as fodder for business, not given to informed critique but pacified in critical faculties by their fear not to be hired.

Another danger is that the certification programs, even if they are post-graduate, could have a retroactive influence on undergraduate standards of curriculum and pedagogy. Think of the way grade school teachers are often forced — sometimes through reward programs — to “teach to the test.” If employability comes to be seen as the test, and we bend all our teaching efforts toward it, then we will have lost our soul as an institution. We need to devote all of our core energies to the opening, expanding, enriching, sharpening, and engaging of the Christian mind.

Another danger is that the financial incentives of such programs — maximizing income, avoiding losses — might be so strong that over time the institution would rationalize siphoning off its resources in times of hardship from programs such as language study, literature and philosophy, music, mathematics, and theology to protect the “heart,” when in fact such programs have never been and should never be regarded as Westmont’s heart.

The burden of such calculations falls ultimately on the President and Board of Trustees, whose job it is to insure the vitality and direction of the institution. In a healthy institution, such burdens are shared with faculty, and communication is prompt and transparent. Faculty do not always know what boards and administrators will sacrifice for the sake of financial and social viability. And boards can be manipulated through processes of appointment, organization, and protocol. Thus, there is reason for vigilance at every level.

A final danger I see is that with too much proliferation of such programs the Faculty might be scrambled and diluted, with cross-cutting allegiances, differing standards for hiring and retention, differing incentive structures, differing social networks, differing degrees of commitment to involvement in governance and faculty affairs, differing standards of professional ethics and research, and the like. We’ve seen it happen in other places.

Being able to acknowledge such dangers doesn’t mean we’ve already been overrun with them. I don’t think we have. The seeds of all these things may already be in the soil and here and there one shows its ragged head. But good gardeners know all about weeds. That’s why they’re out there with trowel and rake, water, fertilizer, scarecrow, and pole.

Randy VanderMey, Ph.D., Professor of English

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Opinions expressed in letters and other editorials, unless otherwise stated, are those of the writers and not of The Horizon staff or the college collectively. Letters to the Editor can be sent to webrown@westmont.edu

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