Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

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Liberal Arts and Teacher Education

  • Douglas YacekEmail author
  • Bruce Kimball
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-532-7_564-1



The question of which domains of knowledge and practice should count as liberal arts subjects has been ceaselessly debated in the history of liberal arts education. Codified as a normative program in the late Roman Empire, the classical liberal arts curriculum encompassed a quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy as well as a trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The content of this program, if not always the names of the subjects, underwent substantial revision at the hands of the medieval Scholastics, Renaissance humanists, and Enlightenment thinkers, whose emphasis vacillated between the logical and speculative focus of the quadrivial subjects and the rhetorical and civic focus of the “trivial” subjects.

Prior to the twentieth century, liberal arts colleges, the institutions singularly dedicated to liberal arts education in the United States, had uniformly embraced a “core model” of liberal arts education, in which students were expected to pass through a common curriculum of liberal arts subjects. Today, most liberal arts colleges have moved to an intermediate “distribution-concentration model,” which allows students to choose courses from a larger and more diversified offering than the traditional core and to declare a major course of study (Kimball 1986). Because many universities require “general education” courses in addition to specialized major courses, the university curriculum also reflects the principles of liberal arts education, and a growing number of universities since the 1970s have begun to offer “honors programs” that directly emulate the liberal arts college (Kimball 2014). The differences between the undergraduate curriculum at the university and the current liberal arts college are thus a matter of degree. Rationales for liberal arts education, whether offered by administrators of liberal arts colleges or university honors programs, generally cite its capacity to support students’ self-cultivation and self-discovery, critical and synoptic thinking, commitment to civic life and service, or some combination of these.

For most of the history of higher education, the liberal arts curriculum was considered the normative preparatory course of study for teachers. This historical congruence was first established in the medieval university and continued through most of the nineteenth century. Although the liberal arts curriculum has since diverged from its position as a normative preparation program for teachers, there remain several areas of profound curricular and theoretical overlap between the liberal arts and teacher education today. In their current form, programs in teacher education in the United States are undergraduate courses of study that typically include coursework in the following areas (in order of required credit hours): a chosen subject specialization and associated teaching methods; general electives; scientific approaches to literacy education, child development, and child psychology; social issues related to multiculturalism, diversity, and equity; job shadowing and student-teaching experiences; and historical, philosophical, sociological, and psychological “foundations of education” (Bullough 2010). With its inclusion of foundation courses in the preparatory curriculum, teacher education thus incorporates several standard liberal arts subjects. In addition, the social, cultural, and psychological elements of the curriculum provide preservice teachers with a broad engagement with the social and natural sciences, one that would be expected in a liberal arts education. If the prospective teacher’s subject specialization happens to be English or language arts, then her preparation program will involve extensive exposure to the humanities subjects of the liberal arts program as well.

There are also important theoretical overlaps between the liberal arts and teacher education. For example, the task of educating children places immense moral and cognitive challenges on teachers’ shoulders, given that they often work in demanding school environments that can be hostile in myriad ways to their students’ growth as well as their own. A broad, liberal education can help educators understand the confluence of social, historical, and philosophical forces that give rise to such conditions, while providing them with the requisite moral and intellectual resources for keeping the educational process directed at what really matters. On the other hand, a liberal arts education gains in vitality and meaning, when it is closely linked with questions of self-realization, culture, and social reproduction. A liberal education pursued outside the context of such questions can quickly become elitist, vacuous, and aloof.

Despite the curricular and theoretical harmony between the liberal arts and teacher education, their paths began to diverge around the middle of the nineteenth century in the United States, and their continued separation is defended by several parties in the current educational landscape. In what follows, the evolution of this relationship from historical congruence to modern divergence will be briefly outlined; the justifications for separation are then analyzed; and an argument for the reestablishment of convergence is offered in the final section.

Historical Congruence: The Liberal Arts as a Preparatory Course of Study for Teachers

For most of Western history, teacher education and the liberal arts were one and the same educational program. In about the fourth or fifth century CE, the septem artes liberales (seven liberal arts) were codified as the normative program of study for those with the leisure, wealth, and political freedom necessary for higher education. Two ideological competitors of the liberal arts – Christian rigorism and Renaissance humanism – challenged this status in the early and late medieval periods, respectively, but ultimately appropriated the curriculum to their own ends. Teaching took on many forms during the reign of the septem artes liberales, whether private tutelage, instruction in academies and monastic schools, or even public and pastoral oratory. In each form, teachers’ preparation would have varied greatly, but they would typically have some proficiency with the seven liberal arts, especially the trivium. The congruency between teacher education and the liberal arts was formalized upon the founding of the medieval universities, where the septem artes liberales constituted the preparatory course of study for the master of arts degree and the accompanying licentia docendi (license to teach). This congruence continued into Enlightenment institutions in Europe and the colleges of the American colonies (Kimball 1986).

The historical congruence of teacher education and the liberal arts was explicitly called into question as a result of two parallel nineteenth-century developments in the United States: (1) the rapid rise of public education and (2) the advent of the Land-Grant and German research university. In their own ways, both developments contributed to the emergence of a novel question: Is a liberal arts education an appropriate course of study for public schoolteachers?

Regarding the first development, the unprecedented expansion of public schooling in the mid-nineteenth century created an extraordinary demand for schoolteachers. This demand motivated the founding of “normal schools,” whose initial purpose was to prepare excellent public schoolteachers. The founding of normal schools marks a crucial moment in the history of the relationship between the liberal arts and teacher education, as it symbolized a belief among the growing number of normal school proponents that teacher education would be best carried out in special institutions devoted to professional teacher education rather than the already existing liberal arts colleges and that the classical liberal arts curriculum would not adequately prepare teachers for the demands of their profession. Although the founders of normal schools had hoped the institution would provide prospective teachers with rigorous preparation for public schoolteaching, these institutions soon began to lower academic standards and program length in order to meet the insatiable demand for schoolteachers, settling on a 1-year program of standard elementary school subjects, classroom management, and teaching method courses (Herbst 1991). This meant that the academic level of normal schools for most of the nineteenth century remained at that of the high school, though it simultaneously enabled normal schools to gain control over the licensure of public schoolteachers (Labaree 2004).

By the end of the nineteenth century, normal schools had all but cornered the teacher education market since undergraduate institutions granting liberal arts degrees could not keep pace with the need for schoolteachers. Graduates of liberal arts colleges were consumed by other professions, as the bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts became a normative requirement for medical schools after 1910 and for law schools in the second quarter of the twentieth century (Kimball 1992). In reaction to increased pressure from students, who hoped to attain greater social mobility with their normal school degree, the normal schools evolved into state colleges and then later regional state universities during the second and third quarters of the twentieth century (Altenbaugh and Underwood 1990). Henceforth, the majority of teachers would be educated in these settings. As enthusiasm for the German research model of higher education grew among college and university presidents, the liberal arts came to be seen as an impediment to the advancement of knowledge in the university. Colleges that did not embrace the new values of research and specialized undergraduate instruction were progressively marginalized in the higher educational landscape of the twentieth century (Kimball 2010). The research-focused educational philosophies of higher education leaders, combined with the widespread progressivist optimism in the burgeoning social sciences, created an environment which encouraged the pursuit of a “science of education” and forged the enduring relationship between science and university teacher education (Lagemann 2000). This relationship would come to be a major ideological influence in the twenty-first-century debate on teacher education and the liberal arts.

Institutional Divergence of Teacher Education and Liberal Arts Education

Because contemporary teacher education, unlike the education of doctors or lawyers, is carried out in the undergraduate years, it no longer enjoys the close congruence it once had with the liberal arts in the medieval university. Teacher education now rivals programs in the liberal arts for undergraduate enrollments. In most states, licensure in the teaching profession is contingent upon both successful performance on an entrance exam and completion of a teacher education program. Undergraduates considering becoming public schoolteachers must therefore choose between a liberal arts program, which will typically lack the preparatory coursework for licensure in teaching, and a teacher education program.

In spite of this institutional divergence, teacher education and the liberal arts still share several congruencies in their respective institutional forms. Many universities now offer masters of teaching (MAT) programs that are intended to prepare students with liberal arts backgrounds for teaching licensure. Alternative licensing options such as Teach for America and supplementary licensure programs in community and technical college settings are other routes into the teaching profession for the liberal arts graduate. The vast majority of liberal arts colleges offer teacher education programs, and the curriculum of these programs overlaps substantially with the liberal arts curriculum.

Despite the significant congruencies between teacher education programs and the liberal arts, two kinds of institutions in the contemporary educational landscape work to increase the institutional divergence between the liberal arts and teacher education. The first are colleges and schools of education at major research universities. Since its formation, the field of educational research has justified its existence by appealing to the status of educational research as a technical science (Lagemann 2000). Educational psychology played a central role in establishing the scientific identity of the field, and this discipline continues to wield the most intellectual influence in research-focused colleges of education (Labaree 2004). For these two reasons, the values and methods of science drive the culture of major educational research institutions, causing their teacher education courses to emphasize modes of understanding endemic to the sciences (specifically psychology) and so-called evidence-based teaching methods. In this environment, reading research articles, understanding statistics, and gleaning best practices from textbooks that synthesize the state of the art are valued over reading books, critical textual analysis, and the open-ended inquiry that is central to the humanistic liberal arts. The influence of progressivism in colleges of education also plays a role in the marginalization of the liberal arts approach, since it tends to be (but is not necessarily) skeptical of the traditional forms of knowledge and focused more on the process of teaching than on its content (Labaree 2004). Insofar as these institutions set the tone for teacher education in smaller teacher preparation programs, teacher education across the country is pressured to diverge from the values and methods of the liberal arts.

The second party working to separate teacher education and the liberal arts are elite liberal arts colleges. Teacher education programs at such institutions are regularly submitted to skepticism and marginalization at the hands of administrators, and several prominent programs – such as those at Chicago and Yale – have been closed in the last 50 years (Kimball 2013). From the perspective of the administration, teacher education programs are costly when the demand for teachers drops, and the rigor and interest of educational research seem to trail behind research in other disciplines. The battles over the legitimacy and solvency of teacher education are typically fought on political grounds, yet the rationales expressed publicly attempt to draw on philosophical arguments to defend a firm conceptual distinction between teacher education and the liberal arts.

Justifications for Separation

There are three rationales that administrators of elite liberal arts colleges commonly advance for excluding, or ejecting, teacher education from the liberal arts college. (1) Teacher education is not a liberal arts subject. (2) Teacher education imparts practical skills. (3) Teacher education is professional education (Kimball 2013). Yet, when submitted to scrutiny, each of these rationales proves to be inadequate. While the first is true as a matter of historical fact, liberal arts programs currently include many disciplines that were not traditionally considered liberal arts subjects, such as modern languages or economics. Consequently, the justification to include these disciplines within the liberal arts curriculum must rely on some criterion of disciplinary “liberality” that excludes only education. The criterion of “having a long textual tradition” will not work, for example, since the study of education, if not teacher education per se, enjoys a textual tradition that extends much longer into the past than economics or modern languages. A definition of liberality as “social significance” may be offered instead, according to which a subject is considered liberal when its study is essential to the understanding and enhancement of social life. Yet this too fails as an exclusionary criterion because education makes up a fundamental social endeavor – namely, the transmission of culture – in a way that no particular foreign language does. A final possible exclusionary definition of liberality might be “disciplinary purity.” Since education encompasses academic fields like history, ethnography, psychology, and philosophy, it is a “mixed” rather than “pure” discipline, having no unique identity of its own. Not only is the very idea of a pure discipline dubious, but education shares the quality of disciplinary eclecticism with disciplines like religion, government, and economics, three mainstays of the liberal arts college.

Although the existence of a criterion of disciplinary liberality that excludes education is doubtful at best, perhaps the liberal arts college should eschew teacher education because of its focus on cultivating mere practical skills. This second rationale runs into important problems as well, however. Many liberal arts subjects cultivate practical skills. Examples are learning to speak modern languages, to play a musical instrument, or to perform laboratory work in biology. Thus, just as we saw with liberality, opponents of teacher education in the liberal arts college must find a principled definition of “practicality” that includes the skills learned in a liberal education but simultaneously excludes the skills of teaching. If practicality means that teacher education prepares one for a particular occupation, then music and “prelaw” and “premed” courses would have to fall away along with teacher education courses. If practicality refers to the presence of vocational considerations in the educator’s choice of skills to cultivate in the classroom, then the entire liberal arts curriculum in its modern form may be impugned. Since almost every liberal arts subject has become a professionalized academic discipline, learning the skills of the discipline is tantamount to vocational preparation, at least when the educator’s offering does not extend much beyond an introductory textbook and a survey of important ideas and thinkers in the history of the field. Finally, practicality may defined as the presence of vocational considerations in the student’s choice of which skills they want to learn. While this definition may rightly call our attention to students’ increasing demand for vocational results from their college education, it cannot serve to exclude teacher education from the liberal arts college. Many students, for better or worse, choose the liberal arts as preparation for later professional education in law, medicine, or the academy, and they are heartily welcomed. Indeed, one of the central aims of the liberal arts college may be to transform students’ narrow vocational aims into richer, more thoughtful purposes and ideals.

The final rationale to consider is whether teacher education is professional education and, as such, properly belongs in postgraduate institutions devoted to this end. The locus classicus for this rationale can be found in Book VIII of Aristotle’s (1984) Politics. Aristotle argues that a liberal education is made up of “only such kinds of knowledge as will be useful to [students] without making mechanics of them,” adding that “those arts [are] mechanical which tend to deform the body, and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind” (1337b3, p. 2122). Teaching and other professions, as paid employment, are illiberal and thus deserve no place in a liberal arts education. Important figures in the history of liberal education such as John Henry Newman, Robert M. Hutchins, and Mortimer Adler have indeed called upon this argument to defend the exclusion of professional studies like teacher education from liberal education.

However, it should be noted in passing that Aristotle is not as friendly to these reformers’ positions as they seem to think. Several lines later, Aristotle introduces another, and quite different, criterion for determining the liberality of a domain of knowledge: “The object also which a man sets before him makes a great difference; if he does or learns anything for his own sake or for the sake of his friends, or with a view to excellence, the action will not appear illiberal” (ibid.). Clearly, studying to become a teacher could be pursued for one’s own sake in hopes of achieving excellence. If so, teacher education, even on Aristotle’s view, could be a liberal study.

Even accepting a strict Aristotelian distinction between the liberal arts and professional education, there may be moral and prudential reasons for integrating teacher education into the liberal arts college (Kimball 2013). One moral argument for including teacher education in the liberal arts college follows from its duties as an educational institution. Liberal arts colleges have a duty to serve not only their own purposes but also the public good. One way to do this is by preparing students to be thoughtful future leaders and professionals. Because liberal arts colleges will be most successful in this task when they focus on their own social domain – education – they should devote at least some of their energies to the preparation of excellent teachers and educational leaders.

Another moral argument flows from the implicitly contractual relationship between liberal arts colleges and the secondary schools from which they draw their students. Liberal arts colleges, especially elite ones, attract some of the best students from high schools and rely on a steady supply of them. To fulfill its end of this implicit social contract, the liberal arts college should seek to supply high schools with excellent teachers and educational leaders.

Finally, there are several prudential arguments to be made for integrating teacher education into the liberal arts college. Teachers with a liberal arts degree can represent the value of liberal education and thus contribute to the recruitment of future generations to liberal arts colleges. More importantly, the health and survival of liberal arts colleges are dependent on the integrity of elementary and secondary schools, and this integrity crucially depends on the quality of teachers. Finally, since there are no current social or cultural movements that would support the extensive reforms needed to transform teacher education into a postgraduate course of study, better to keep it in strong academic institutions where it can flourish.

Defending Convergence: Teacher as Liberal Learner and the Liberally Educated Person as Teacher

Although there are good reasons for the liberal arts college to welcome teacher education into its educational program, the justifications for separation from colleges of education at universities have yet to be addressed. Likely because of the prestige of the idea of liberal education, as well as its marginality in the current higher education scene, there are few professors of education at major research institutions who explicitly defend separating teacher education and the liberal arts. However, there are two implicit justifications for separation that can be discerned from the way teacher education is conducted there, both of which concern their assumed conception of teacher expertise: (1) Expert teachers are those who stay up-to-date on the latest educational research on teaching, and (2) expert teachers are those who possess “pedagogical content knowledge,” which includes (a) knowledge of the methods of content delivery specific to each discipline and (b) psychological knowledge about how children learn best (Shulman 1987). Since research-driven colleges of education are at the cutting edge of educational research and specialize in teaching pedagogical content knowledge, they are the best place to educate expert teachers.

The legitimacy of this argument turns, of course, on our understanding of teacher expertise. The problem with the above conception of expertise lies less in what it contains than in what it leaves out. Philosophers of education of both the neo-Aristotelian and Pragmatist stripe have pointed out that the expert teacher must possess, in addition to pedagogical content knowledge in the relevant discipline, the capacity to bring students to appreciate and experience the discipline’s connection to human flourishing. On this view, each discipline – whether physics, social studies, or fine art – is a complex social practice that encompasses a world of distinctive goods. These distinctive goods constitute the internal connection of the practice to flourishing; they are the special joys and experiences that only the initiated physicist or artist can access. The teacher’s expertise thus consists in her ability to invite students into the discipline she teaches in a way that reveals its intrinsic joys and its connection to flourishing, an ability variously called “practical wisdom” or phronesis (Strike 2005). Unsurprisingly, in order to invite students into the world of mathematics or social studies, the teacher herself must be able to connect with the distinctive goods of her discipline. Practical wisdom in teaching is therefore not merely a matter of skilled action, but implies a certain kind of relationship between the teacher and her discipline – namely, one in which the discipline serves a vehicle for her own further growth and flourishing. Practical wisdom, in other words, takes the form of sustained inquiry that enables both student and teacher to flourish (Higgins 2011). The expert teacher is a learner.

If this dimension of expertise is added to a conception of the expert teacher, then the liberal arts and teacher education become intrinsically complementary enterprises. The learning in which the phronetic teacher is characteristically engaged encompasses precisely the kind of learning that is encouraged in liberal education. In order to unlock the internal rewards not only of the subjects they teach, but of the practice of teaching itself, teachers must grasp these practices in the context of human flourishing, a context that can only be understood by means of the full range of human thought – though science, history, philosophy, and art. Furthermore, these various disciplines each illuminate different aspects of the complex encounter between teacher and students. No one discipline or mode of understanding can be sacrificed to another, if teachers are to appreciate the full meaning of their experiences with students in the classroom. On the other hand, a truly liberal education is one that maintains a connection with educational questions – that is, with the import of disciplinary knowledge for self-understanding and, most importantly, self-cultivation. Indeed, because teaching is a vocation devoted precisely to the project of mediating knowledge and self-cultivation, the teacher becomes the fullest instantiation of the ideal of the liberally educated person.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Leibniz University of HannoverHannoverGermany
  2. 2.Ohio State UniversityColumbusUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Nigel Tubbs
    • 1
  1. 1.University of WinchesterHampshireUK