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Paul Egeland

Reflections on the Liberal Arts as a K-12 Educator

Paul Egeland, June, 2013 

Paul Egeland  Why am I interested in and supportive of the liberal arts?  After all, I teach in a discipline that focuses on professional preparation that in fact, leads to an Illinois teaching license. And upon my own college graduation, my personal experience in a liberal arts institution did not leave me with a deep appreciation for the liberal arts.  Yet today I find myself a more strident supporter of the liberal arts than ever before.

Perhaps my perspective has been influenced by my role as an elementary education generalist in a traditional field that has undergone seismic shifts in recent years.  My personal parent hat gave me space to ask questions about higher education when responsible for the steep tuition of the liberal arts colleges my daughters attended.  Or my nearness to age 60 may be an emerging factor as I look back on trends, reflect on existential questions, and try to make sense of several generations of changes.  Whatever the reasons, I know I have joined the struggle to help the liberal arts survive in an era where evidence such as Ferrall’s Liberal Arts at the Brink points toward its slow demise.

My area of discipline, education, is one that constantly hosts wrestling matches with questions of educational philosophy and praxis.  In public K-12 education, the passage of the No Child Left Behind act in 2001 appears to have sounded a death knell for the liberal arts as schools came under strong scrutiny to improve reading and math test scores on state standardized tests in order to demonstrate adequate yearly progress.  While states have had latitude concerning their goals and assessment systems, over the past decade and throughout the United States, educators have documented a narrowing of the curriculum to accommodate additional instructional time and emphasis on math and reading skills, to the point that many elementary students are deprived of the richness of history or inquiry-based science units.  Elementary teachers tend to rotate between offering social studies and science.  This trend is clearly evident to me as I visit schools weekly and have hosted or observed student teachers for over two decades. Some failing schools (three consecutive years of not making adequate yearly progress for enrolled students) have faced a perfect storm of state pressure to improve low test scores and difficult economic challenges and as a result, have cut art, music, physical education and health from their curriculum. 

More recently, we have been introduced to the Common Core State Standards, an initiative led by state governors and education commissioners and funded by federal grants, which has led to the creation of common core educational standards in the area of the English language arts and mathematics.  Currently, these standards have been adopted by 46 states, with only Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia on the sidelines.  In short, we WILL have a national curriculum, at least in terms of curricular standards.  The good news for the liberal arts is that these standards require a higher level of critical thinking by students, they will demand higher-level thinking and deeper responses to complex questions.  Furthermore, this kind of curriculum will expect teachers to possess critical thinking skills that will not likely be enhanced by additional methods classes, but by a liberal arts education.  Presently, most teacher preparation programs are housed in large, state universities where specialization and professional or technical training is honored and the liberal arts, if present, is likely relegated to an honor’s college.  This pipeline must be changed to insure our students have teachers who are able to develop the critical thinking students. 

In the English language arts standards, there is also a significant shift in terms of the balance between fiction and nonfiction literature.  As students progress through the grade levels, the percentage of nonfiction literature increases significantly, that is to say, the role of literature will be reduced in the standard curriculum and the role of informational text will escalate. It is true that many middle and high school students are unable to handle complex information text and this deficiency must be addressed.  But I hope we do not sacrifice quality literature that leads to an enriched life, regardless of one’s station, as evident in Renee, the concierge in the bestseller, The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

In the midst of these national pressures to standardize curriculum and the role of state licensure to standardize teacher preparation, what can educators like me do to keep the flame of liberal arts flickering in spite of being doused with the flood of technical training and specialized programs?  As faculty, we can certainly spread the good news as we write and publish journal articles or books promoting the values of the liberal arts.  As an example, last year a colleague and I coauthored an article on how our mentoring initiative supports the values of the liberal arts and it was published by the journal of the Association of Independent Liberal Arts Colleges for Teacher Education (AILACTE).  Papers presented at conferences and annual meetings also provide opportunities to voice and debate why the liberal arts are not outdated and still relevant in the 21st Century.  As a department, we recently revised our conceptual framework which was: Teacher as an Agent of Change and is now: Preparing Educators Who Teach and Lead for Human Flourishing. This new mission statement that will guide our teacher education program is more directly reflective of our institution’s historic link to the liberal arts.  

In advising students, it is not uncommon to hear a student express his or her perspective of general education courses in a derogatory way, or at least in the sense that they are necessary evils that don’t offer much value.  I must counter those attitudes with a sound rationale as to why a strong general education program in a liberal arts institution is an education for life.  In my own classes, we will continue to debate the merits of Mortimer Adler’s Paideia Proposal and the thesis of Earl Shorris’ The Art of Freedom: Teaching Humanities to the Poor.  After such a discussion this past spring, my grad class was interested in a follow-up field trip to explore classical education as experienced by K-12 students today.  We were able to spend most of a day in a classical private school in Naperville, with opportunities to see how the liberal arts are still alive and valued in some quarters.  My students are motivated to nurture and extend these values in public schools, in spite of general resistance and the pressure to narrow the curriculum.

At this point of my educational career, I am more committed to the liberal arts than ever before. Perhaps I’m getting old and conservative and less flexible. But I’d like to think this fire burns within me because I’ve been enlightened by a more comprehensive education, one that began decades ago, but over the years has been liberating by further reading, conversations with colleagues, and life experiences.