Teaching and Learning for a Lifetime

By Audrey McMillion

In a culture where an emphasis is placed on science, technology, engineering, and math professions, it seems that liberal arts degrees are sometimes marginalized and replaced by an awe for that which is considered more functional and, perhaps, more revolutionary. Degrees in the liberal arts are considered by some to be less valuable, as the number of individuals needed to sustain academic and professional fields are far fewer than those required to fuel technology and its innovations. It is not that the liberal arts approach is considered unimportant; the number of jobs related to liberal arts is just not growing as quickly as the need for STEM professional degrees.

However, while many individuals work in STEM-related jobs, we sometimes forget about the teachers who helped these individuals reach such success. The respect that our society deems to be fitting for a software engineer or medical doctor is far higher than that which is granted to teachers. But without teachers, would there ever be students rising through their classes to take on such highly valued positions? The answer in most cases is no. Sadly, some students do not have the resources to consider a variety of futures; they might not even expect to graduate from high school. Therefore, the position of a teacher, someone that a student can rely on, is a highly important and meaningful way to apply a liberal arts degree.

The lack of teachers for subjects and classes in under-funded schools is just one of the many factors contributing to low graduation rates. Yet there are those who respond to this lack of educators; many qualified individuals become teachers, and some choose to do so through programs like Teach for America and CityYear. Many of these program participants are recent graduates of liberal arts colleges throughout the U.S., as large numbers of seniors apply every year; indeed, according to a TFA fact sheet, 10% of seniors from Morehouse College apply, as well as 8% of seniors from Howard University; both of these schools have strong liberal arts traditions and have chapters of Phi Beta Kappa. TFA informs its applicants that they search for individuals who demonstrate characteristics like perseverance in the face of challenges and ability to respond to unexpected situations. These and other similar qualities are those that are nurtured at liberal arts institutions. 

Graduates with liberal arts degrees have spent years thinking critically and creatively about a myriad of subjects. What better people to bring curiosity and innovation into the classroom? Stephen Mucher’s beautiful description of the teaching profession appears in “The Liberal Arts Role in Teacher Education,” from Inside HigherEd, as he says, “They teach for understanding. They encourage and support students with the knowledge that learning can be uneven, contradictory, and even frustrating. They demand deeper thinking, applaud passion, reward accuracy, tap curiosity, and otherwise help students discover the inherent human need to solve problems and experience beauty.” Deeper thinking, passion, curiosity, and problem solving all appear in the curricula and extra-curricula available at liberal arts school throughout our country, and these attributes are important in encouraging a love of knowledge in others. Teaching America’s children is not a small job; without an educated citizenry, any country that hopes to sustain a democracy faces a grim future.

Mucher mentions that liberal arts colleges have a long standing history of teaching teachers and aiding them in their preparation to share their knowledge with others, and he pushes for a renewal of this tradition with his powerful statement: “Without a professional core of teachers who are versed in the humanities and steeped in the great questions of science, schools are especially vulnerable to forces that reduce teaching to a series of discrete measurable acts.” Here, he speaks of the importance of sharing knowledge, and the paths to which an excellent education can lead. As Mucher suggests, the process of placing teachers in our public schools begins in liberal arts colleges’ classrooms, as the professors there are the teachers of the teachers. What better people to teach our teachers than those who are devoted to a life of learning?

Audrey McMillion is a senior at Hendrix College majoring in English. Hendrix College is home to the Beta of Arkansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.