The Origin of the Liberal Art of Science (1990)

by Shirley Malcom

Many are surprised when I share the origins story of The Liberal Art of Science, largely because it is hard to imagine that it emerged from conversations among a group largely made up of non-scientists. On the other hand, perhaps it isn’t surprising. Over the decades it has become more and more clear that science and its role in policymaking, security and the economy have become too important to be left to consideration of just scientists. It is clear today, more than ever, that a solid grounding in science is needed by everyone as we battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was 1985. I was excited to be invited to join the Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, an initiative of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York. The group included a power team of education governors; state education leaders; the presidents of both teachers’ unions; captains of industry; and former Carnegie President, Secretary of Health Education and Welfare and one of my personal heroes, John Gardner. I had no idea how I had made that list. At the time I was the only member of the group with school age children; I also brought a deep concern for STEM education for all and knew that this systemic effort of the Task Force to address the needs of the teaching profession likely provided a real chance to address barriers to quality STEM education for all.

The Task Force was concerned about issues beyond teacher education and fields beyond STEM. How to enhance the role and place of teaching as a profession? Given the centrality of education within the economy it was time for re-thinking and re-positioning the role of teachers. When issues related to STEM education emerged, inevitably questions of teacher quality emerged, along with concerns about how well teachers were being educated to meet the needs of all students. While the public discourse at the time regarding poor performance of US students in mathematics and science was very much pointing to failings within K-12 education, it was clear in our discussions that challenges lay within higher education—how and what prospective teachers were taught.

I learned a lot from that group of wise people. And I hope they learned from me as well. In discussions about the differences in the preparation of elementary and secondary (subject area) teachers I was forced to ask myself: Did I think of myself as teaching biology or teaching students? Did I build a bridge between the learners and the content? Did I understand my students as well as I knew my content?
My mother was a third-grade teacher in the segregated schools of Birmingham, Alabama. All of her students were Black, and almost all of them were poor. She knew her students, their families and their struggles. When I was in high school, I helped her grade student work and did most of the art for her borders and bulletin board. I learned how critical third grade was for children, and I saw the time, effort and passion that my mother gave to her job to make sure her children had every possible chance. She was especially focused on making certain that every student who completed her class was able to read.

Since some of her coursework had been completed many years earlier at Tuskegee Institute, I’m not sure what courses she had had. But I knew that she taught every subject—reading, math, science, writing, geography, music and more. And I concluded from that experience that defining the appropriate content preparation of an elementary teacher was a huge challenge.

Many of the women students in my residence hall in college had been elementary education majors, a traditional choice for women in the 1960s, so I was familiar with the courses they had taken—heavily focused on understanding the learners and the methods to use in teaching them. I got it that they were learning about the “who” and the “how,” but what about the “what?” In elementary school, there was a lot of “what” and in elementary science, the “what” matters a lot.

These teacher candidates had a lot of latitude with regard to which science courses they could take to fulfill their degree and licensing requirements. And those I knew used the entire range of science fields. But as I reflected on those experiences, I realized, along with other Task Force members, that such a scatter-shot approach was unlikely to give teachers the kind of grounding in science that would support their providing quality elementary science teaching.

As we deliberated on recommendations as to the desired content knowledge for elementary teachers we agreed that a strong liberal arts education would provide a solid background upon which they could build. But those of us whose education had been in the sciences knew we had a problem. What was a liberal education in the sciences? Not only what did one need to know, but what kind of experiences should be provided to support that learning?

Such a simple question, what education in the sciences was appropriate and desirable for elementary teachers, became a much more profound question. For any person who was not aimed for focused study within the sciences, what constituted a liberal education in those fields? Even for those of us destined to study geology, chemistry, physics or biology as a major, what for us constituted a liberal education within the sciences? Were these the same? Different? And what would need to happen to get us to a place where our colleges and universities could offer this?

It was fortuitous that the conversations about K-12 Benchmarks and standards in science were going on concurrently, and in the same community. But as difficult as the processes were to develop and agree upon goals for K-12 science, it was clear that talking about higher education would be much more challenging. Would it be possible to move from the choice and assumed prerogative of an individual faculty member (so-called “academic freedom”), department (distribution requirement), school or institution (core curriculum) toward a community commitment of what understandings in science we might all need?

Would today’s responses to that question be the same as those in the early 1990s? Or have advances in science shifted these discussions?

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