Volume 3, Number 3
Criminal Justice as a Liberal Arts Discipline
by Stephen S. Owen
Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and
Tod W. Burke, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice
Academic criminal justice is too often regarded as either vocational training or a professional program, rather than as a liberal arts discipline grounded in the social sciences. Indeed, many criminal justice courses are designed to be "hands on," covering glamorous topics such as serial killers and snipers, while many students evaluate course content based on the quality of "war stories" and the practical relevance of the material to "real world" police work. However, a well-designed criminal justice program must fit within a liberal arts model, both to prepare student-scholars educated on the concept of "justice" and to demonstrate the legitimacy of criminal justice as an academic field.
Broadly speaking, a liberal arts education should provide students with the foundations for developing a worldview - through their own critical analyses and dialogues - supported by a broad base of theory and knowledge. A true understanding of criminal justice draws upon a considerable body of thought from a variety of fields. This includes, for instance, biology or chemistry, to analyze criminal evidence; literature, to appreciate how crime has been understood as part of the human condition; and sociology, to understand how social conditions contribute to crime.
While criminal justice clearly has an interdisciplinary base, it is not merely an amalgam of perspectives originating in separate fields. Rather, it requires the integration of these perspectives by broadly trained scholars. Students and academicians must critically evaluate and integrate extant knowledge into a form that allows them to address criminal justice questions. For instance, it is not possible truly to address an issue in law enforcement without framing it in the context of a discussion of police legitimacy and the sources from which police powers are derived - much less a consideration of why certain acts have been labeled as deviant. It often is assumed that criminal justice programs are no more than "cop shops" that provide technical training. This is a false assumption. Without providing students the opportunity to frame their occupational and personal lives within a larger worldview, can we truly expect them to appreciate the broader implications of what they are doing and what values they are upholding? The serious student of criminal justice - as opposed to a technically adept but narrowly trained automaton - will find greater avenue for personal growth through a consideration of the broad questions that frame a worldview. Without this fundamental perspective, students and practitioners may be left in Plato's proverbial cave, failing to appreciate the true purpose of their work and how their lives and contributions may be placed in appropriate perspective. Surely society would benefit by having the guardians of justice truly understand what it is that they are guarding - and why. This understanding comes from a liberal arts background, rather than technical training.
It is the liberal arts that provide a solid foundation for understanding crime and justice in society. It is incumbent on the part of criminal justice programs to create curricula that emphasize the intellectual underpinnings of the criminal justice process in the context of a liberal arts education.
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