Supplemental Readings in Public Administration

School of Public and
Nonprofit Administration
Dr. Mark C. Hoffman
Phone: 616 771-6587
e-mail: [email protected]
Supplemental Readings in
Public Administration
The Role of an Undergraduate Liberal Arts Education and a
Professional Education in Public Administration: Some Enduring
Curtis Ventriss
SOURCE: Curtis Ventriss (1998) The role of an undergraduate liberal arts education and a professional
education in public administration: some enduring dilemmas. Journal of Public Affairs Education, 4:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Curtis Ventriss is a professor of Natural Resources Policy and Political Science at the
University of Vermont. He previously taught at Johns Hopkins University and was a Visiting Fellow at Oxford
Upon the subject of education. ... I can only say that I view it as the most important
subject which we as a people can be engaged in.
-Abraham Lincoln
If education is to be genuinely progressive, it must face squarely and courageously every
social issue, come to grips with life in all its stark reality establish an original relationship
with community ... fashion a compelling and challenging vision of human dignity...
-George Counts
issues that are by and large defined by their
compatibility to the acceptable (and
prevailing) political and economic motifs of
Writing in 1974, C. Wright Mills somberly
remarked on the changing nature of a liberal
education in what he so aptly referred to as an
increasingly mass (and market) society: “Very
broadly speaking, the function of education as it
was first set up in this country was political: to
make citizens more knowledgeable and better
thinkers. In time, the function of education shifted
from the political to the economic; to train people
for better paying jobs” (368).
I will argue here that, quite simply, an
undergraduate degree in public administration
— which, by definition, denotes some kind of
professional educational perspective — is not
needed, nor is it a desirable educational goal
for the field of public administration (or public
policy) to pursue. As convincing as some of
the arguments may seem concerning the
importance of exposing undergraduates to
managerial and policy skills — even with the
customary lip-service given to the intrinsic
value of liberal arts — such an educational
view will only serve to obfuscate the hidden
(and myopic) technocratic proclivity in such a
pedagogical approach. I think education in
public affairs at the undergraduate level should
focus exclusively on broad macrosocietal
issues — namely, issues dealing with what the
substantive role of the citizenry might be in a
democratic polity at a time when most policy
issues are becoming inherently more complex
and technical, or the issues concerning the
nature of the public interest in an increasingly
pluralistic and multicultural society; or even an
exploration of the different notions of social
justice and their meanings (and political
implications) in contemporary society. The list
goes on and on.
In the next breath, however, Mills goes on to posit
a rather controversial issue, worth quoting him at
For publics that really want to know
the realities of their community and
nation and world are, by that
determining fact, politically radical.
Politics as we know it today often rests
upon myths and lies and crackpot
notions; and many policies, debated
and undebated, assume inadequate and
misleading definitions of reality. When
such myths and hokum prevail, those
who are out to find the truth are bound
to be upsetting. This is the role of
mind, of intellect, of reason, of ideas:
to define reality adequately and in a
publicly relevant way. The role of
education, especially education for
adults, is to build and sustain publics
that will go for and develop, and live
with, and act upon, adequate definitions
of reality (1974:373).
My contention for this pedagogical direction
will primarily focus on two basic tenets: the
need to keep undergraduate education in public
affairs multidisciplinary hence exposing
students to normative and other social issues
that have little, if any, vocational importance
(or at least at this stage of their educational
development are to be regarded as incidental to
professional preparation for jobs in formal
organizations), and the need to have students,
within a liberal arts context, critically examine
those (to use C. Wright Mills’ term)
misleading definitions of reality that often
masquerade as a historical and political given.
Let us now briefly discuss each of these points
in turn.
These two rather straightforward comments
(assuming their validity), when taken together,
raise a salient issue often overlooked by many
of us in the field of public affairs, and, I might
add, in particular, by the National Association
of Schools of Public Affairs and
Administration (NASPAA): that perhaps the
professional education we propose to students
in public administration and public policy
whether graduate or undergraduate, is mainly
reflective of the broader political and historical
milieu that has formed our social
consciousness of how we approach political
and administrative issues in the first place —
this reason, Hickock insisted, that “an
undergraduate program in public affairs should
[therefore] be multidisciplinary It should be
rooted in liberal arts and emphasize the
development of the conceptual, analytical, and
interpersonal [knowledge] required for the
making of policy choices and the
implication of these choices” (1981:2).
There can be no successful democratic
society till education conveys a
philosophic outlook.
-Alfred North Whitehead
The need for developing such a philosophic
basis in public affairs education requires, of
course, an exposure to issues in history
philosophy, literature, religion, geography,
sociology and cultural studies, to name just a
few. This approach in itself is hardly novel.
What is, perhaps, novel in this approach, if
done correctly, is the kind of questions that
might emerge in the student’s mind from this
educational process — or so it is hoped —,
especially in regard to issues pertaining
directly to public administration’s role in
society For example, Peter Savage posed such
philosophic questions, as moral dilemmas, in a
way that is hard to ignore:
Paul Appleby once argued a point that is not
often heard anymore at most public
administration or policy conferences: that a
philosophic foundation is essential in
educating future leaders for the challenges they
will encounter in the public sector. In a
remarkably forceful tone, Appleby put it this
Education for the public services must
be related to a philosophy about the
public service. I would assert that the
first essential to superior public
performance is an understanding of
one’s society and its people, and the
second is an understanding of the
conduct of politics and government,
and the third an understanding of
affairs in organized institutions.
Particular techniques can have their
place in a university program if it is a
subordinate place in which techniques
are related to purposes and philosophy
(cited in Edmonson, 1988:6).
[L]et me propose the following as the
key intellectual and moral dilemmas
confronting public administration.
What standard of decision do we use to
select which questions ought to be
studied and how we study them? Who
defines our questions and motives for
us? To what extent are we aware of the
social and moral implications of
knowledge in public administration?
What are the uses of public
administration as a social science?
Does public administration presently
yield knowledge useful to certain
institutions in society and not to others?
To whose advantage does public
administration work? What are the
assumptions and, more importantly, the
consequences of research and
education in public administration?
Although Appleby was not talking about
undergraduate education per se, the
achievement of such an educational goal, I
would claim, requires a multidisciplinary
approach that goes well beyond what usually
takes place in a professional degree program.
This is because professional education in
graduate or undergraduate programs mandates,
quite frankly, some kind of specialization and
attention to pragmatic skills — as it should.
Yet, as Eugene Hickock (1981:11) has
correctly noted, “undergraduates cannot
receive adequate instruction in advanced
techniques of policy analysis and financial
management while being called upon
simultaneously to develop proficiencies in
other, often totally unrelated areas.” It is for
I am not arguing that graduate or
undergraduate public administration programs
have completely ignored these pivotal
questions; rather, I am merely acknowledging
that these questions have, for the most part,
tended to be politely neglected or dismissed as
secondary to the more important managerial
and policy emphasis in public affairs. For
whatever burdens we put on undergraduate
education in terms of what kind of knowledge
we want our students to have as vital citizens,
we hardly need — as Robert Hutchins (1953)
reminded us long ago — an undergraduate
degree in public administration as compared to
a strong liberal arts orientation. John Dewey
(1966) was correct: the purpose and challenge
of education is not to adjust knowledge to the
vicissitudes of the labor market, but to prepare
students for the substantive requirements of
citizenship in a democratic polity Simply put,
an undergraduate degree in public
administration is not required in order to
achieve these requirements.
to take the chance of promoting any subtle
form of professional education that may only
nudge “the field [further] into a habitual
inclination that [already] tends to delegitimize
any serious issues dealing with public
administration as an instrument of the state or
the exploration of societal issues as interwoven
with the economic and political fabric itself”
(Ventriss, 1993:256). On that rather
troublesome note, let us now turn to a second
[Bureaucracy] is the application of
rationality to administration and
-Max Weber
Yet an undergraduate education in public
affairs does offer us the unique opportunity to
build an educational approach that is
normative in nature, a point that Philip Phenix
has eloquently argued:
Any theory is dogmatic which is not
based upon the critical examination of
its underlying principles.
-John Dewey
This preoccupation ... with technique
and strategy, is the intellectual’s
concession to bureaucratic modernity...
-Peter Nettl
The most important product of
education is a constructive, consistent,
and compelling system of values
around which personal and social life
may be organized. Unless teaching and
learning provide such a focus, all of the
particular knowledge and skills
required are worse than useless.
Amy Gutmami, in an intriguing analysis about
the relationship between democracy and
education, has wryly concluded that
“education seems to present special difficulties
for all liberal theories” (1982:261). I would
only add here that education also poses a real
difficulty for the field of public administration
(and public policy). For instance, what kind of
knowledge can public administration
really offer to students when instrumental
rationality lies at the heart of what is often
attempted — and encouraged — by a
professional education emphasis. After all,
courses in democratic theory or political
philosophy in any curriculum in public
administration or public policy do not carry the
same pedagogical weight as courses in
budgeting, decision- making, or in
management. As most would agree, this state
of affairs is hardly an accident. Ironically, an
undergraduate education may just be one of the
An “educated” person whose information and
ability are directed to no personally
appropriated worthy ends is a menace to
himself [or herself] and society A highly
sophisticated society educated to no coherent
way of life is likewise by its very learning
made the more prone to disease and
degeneration (1961:17-18).
My point here is not only that the fulcrum of
any viable undergraduate approach in public
affairs should promote the importance of
liberal arts and multidisciplinary education —
putting aside their varied meanings — but also
that undergraduate education itself is too
crucial, particularly in regard to public affairs,
last intellectual places in which students are
allowed — indeed encouraged (it is hoped) —
to critically examine, among other things, the
normative implications of citizenship.
As Socrates made clear, such an educational
process has to make visible to the individual
the nature of that contradiction and its possible
implications for inhibiting the exploration of
new avenues of knowledge and cognitive
insight. We can hope that, if this process has
any viability; it can facilitate the kind of
imagination and critical questioning that will
lead students to explore the following societal
and historical themes:
Walter Moberly outlined the importance of
such an examination that continues to have
relevance for us today:
Our predicament is this: most students
go through universities without ever
having been forced to exercise their
minds in the issues which are really
momentous. Under the guise of
academic [and professional] neutrality
they are subtly conditioned to
unthinking acquiescence in the social
and political status quo and in a
secularism on which they have never
seriously reflected. Owing to the
prevailing fragmentation of studies,
they are not challenged to decide
responsibly on a life-purpose, or
equipped to make such a decision
wisely. They are not incited to
disentangle and examine critically the
assumptions and emotional attitudes
underlying the particular studies they
pursue, the profession for which they
are preparing, the ethical judgments
they are accustomed to make, and the
political and religious convictions they
hold. Fundamentally, they are
uneducated (1949:70).
How do the organizational, institutional,
and cultural processes of society relate to
one another?
What are the historical forces within the
polity that are promoting change and
stability; and how does our own historical
period differ from other periods?
What are the societal implications of the
prevailing, diverse roles that women and
men are playing in society? “In what ways
are they selected and formed, liberated and
repressed, made sensitive and blunted?”
(Mills, 1959:174).
According to Mills (1959), the three great
questions facing social science as enunciated
above are significant because they inevitably
involve issues of structure, history, and
personality This requires, Mills tells us, the use
of a sociological, historical, and philosophical
imagination that has the scholar and student
alike partake in the interplay of both
exploration and criticism. Assuming the
validity of Mills’ point, this important and vital
role is just too crucial to be sacrificed on the
altar of trying to promote an undergraduate
degree in public administration that will
probably lack the depth necessary anyway for
students to obtain any meaningful job in the
public sector or the nonprofit sector, or, more
importantly, to be legitimized as a way to
provide additional revenues to support a
professional graduate program.
I want to take this opportunity to expand upon
some of Moberly’s themes because they are, I
think, directly relevant to this discussion. First,
I think Moberly put his finger on a critical
point, one on which we simply do not spend
enough attention in our seemingly endless
discussions about undergraduate or
professional graduate education: that an
educated person, regardless of one’s political
or social outlook on life, must subject those
learned belief systems (regardless of what they
are) to some kind of critical scrutiny Plato
referred to this critical process as elenchus —
that is, making present to the individual the
relationship between one’s own beliefs and the
possible contradictory aspects of those beliefs.
Moreover, when politics itself is becoming
more of a specialized enterprise with its own
appropriate professional inclinations, I do not
think it is wise for us to contribute to that
instrumental propensity with our own
professional stamp of approval by giving any
further credence to this state of affairs. We can
concede the importance of a professional
education at the graduate level with all the
requisite emphasis given to pragmatic skills
and knowledge, and, at the same time, not
contradict ourselves if we see a radically
different role for undergraduate education,
broadly speaking, dealing with some of the key
issues and problems in public affairs from a
more philosophic viewpoint. This is where the
future challenge lies for us in undergraduate
education As tempting as it may be to flirt with
an undergraduate education in public
administration, and as much as we may couch
our terminology in idyllic terms that sound
noble and well-intentioned, we will only fool
ourselves about the ramifications of this
approach and what it will really mean for our
field, and, more critically, for our students.
about the nature and purposes of the public
service in a democratic society.
I do not think we can meet that challenge by
encouraging any more instrumental tendencies
in our education than what are already there. In
the end, we will ultimately draw our poetry not
from any refined approach to professional
education at the undergraduate level, but from
the substantive ideals to which we aspire —
ideals and normative inquiries that will foster a
philosophic deliberation and debate on the
most salient issues of the day. Herein lies our
greatest contribution to the students we teach:
a pedagogical approach that gives homage to
the normative values that can sustain “a
compelling and challenging vision of human
How students can learn to translate this
educational process to the arenas of
institutions, political power, social practices,
and community life is perhaps where
discursive reflection and practical action
finally come to merge. In this regard, Bertolt
Brecht’s “Einverstandnis” speaks to us
The basic cleavage which runs through
our beliefs and values comes to light
when we try to determine what we shall
teach and how we shall teach it
-Alexander Meiklejohn
[I]t takes a lot of things to change the
Anger and tenacity. Science and
The quick initiative, the long reflection,
The cold patience and the infinite
The understanding of the particular
case and the understanding of the
Only the lessons of reality can teach us
to transform reality
Public administration and public policy
primarily focus on the production of socially
useful knowledge as applied to political and
administrative problems and their resolution.
This process, as Peter Savage (1968)
emphasized, is not a socially neutral activity.
Concomitantly, what we shall teach and how
we shall teach any particular course, I would
argue, is also not an educationally or socially
neutral activity It may be true that most
students — especially at the undergraduate
level — may not be particularly interested in
how to become, to use Max Weber’s term, “a
cultivated individual” if given the choice of
obtaining a professional degree that is
marketable in today’s society We nevertheless
owe to ourselves and the students we teach to
inculcate an elenchus process in the hope of
making our students — at a minimum — more
knowledgeable citizens and better thinkers
Edmonson, Hank. 1988. "John Dewey, the
Founders, and Education for Public
Affairs.” Presented at the National
Conference on Teaching Public
Administration, Georgia State University,
Dewey, John. 1966. Democracy and
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Moberly, Walter. 1949. The Crisis in the
University. London: Student Christian
Movement Press.
Gutmann, Amy. 1982. ”What's the Use of
Going to School?” In A. Sen and
B.Williams, eds., Utilitarian and Beyond.
New York: Cambridge University Press.
Phenix, Philip. 1961. Education and the
Common Good. New York: Harper and
Hickock, Eugene. 1981. "The Liberal Arts and
Education for the Public Service.”
Presented to the Society for Public
Administration, Detroit, Michigan, April
Savage, P 1968. “What Am I Bid for Public
Administration?” Public Administration
Review, 28:390-391.
Ventriss, Curtis. 1993. ”The Ideology of
Professionalism in Public Administration:
Implications for Education.” International
Journal of Public Administration, Fall:
Hutchins, Robert, M. 1953. ”Shall We Train
for Public Administration? Impossible". In
D. Waldo, ed., Ideas and Issues in Public
Administration. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Mills, C. Wright. 1974. Power; Politics, and
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Imagination. New York: Oxford University