When I finished my Ph.D in American history I set out to find an academic appointment at a respectable college where I could practice my vocation as a teacher and scholar. The job market was tight back then (as it is today) and I was thrilled to land a position. The fact that I would be teaching at a “comprehensive” college rather than a strictly “liberal arts” college was not something I considered seriously. I was impressed with the mission, the history department, and the academic community that this “comprehensive” college offered and I signed the contract. I did not regret the decision then and, for the most part, I do not regret the decision now.
Later, however, I learned a bit more about the difference between a “comprehensive” college” and a “liberal arts” college.
Here is a good definition of a liberal arts college:
A liberal arts college is a four-year higher-learning institution, usually found in the United States. These colleges emphasize a broad undergraduate education. This means that students often take a number of classes which may not directly relate to the student’s career goals. By taking a wide variety of classes, students at liberal arts colleges aim to receive a well-rounded education. While there are professional training programs available at some of these colleges, specialized programs are usually not emphasized.
Here is a nice definition of a “comprehensive” or “baccalaureate” college:
[Baccalaureate colleges’s] focus on undergraduate education but grant fewer than 50 percent of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines. The baccalaureate colleges category includes institutions where at least 10 percent of the undergraduate degrees awarded are bachelor’s.
I have enjoyed my work as a faculty member at a comprehensive college and have found the liberal arts have been respected here in spite of the fact that the majority of our students graduate with majors in a professional field such as nursing, engineering, business, or education.
Recently, however, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has mandated certain requirements that have threatened the liberal arts at the college where I teach. The PDE requires that all college students in teacher certification programs must take an additional 270 hours (9 credits) in special education and an additional ninety hours (3 credits) in English language learner instruction. If a college wants to maintain a teacher certification program it must work these requirements into the curriculum.
It seems that there are two general ways a college might respond to these mandates. Most comprehensive colleges will try to integrate these hours into the curriculum even if that means raiding the “general education” or “liberal arts” core in order to do so. Since the professional programs carry just as much weight as the liberal arts disciplines at a comprehensive college, the administration does not see this as much of a problem. Of course there is the potential that the liberal arts will be weakened in the process. From what I can tell thus far, this is the approach that is being taken at Messiah College. The faculty in certain liberal arts disciplines are not happy about this (myself included–can you tell?), but it is all part of the price we pay for practicing our vocation at a “comprehensive” college.
Compare this approach to a liberal arts college like Gettysburg College, located a few dozen miles down Route 15. In a recent op-ed in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, Janet Morgan Riggs, the interim president of Gettysburg, worries that the PDE requirements will mean that fewer students trained in liberal arts colleges will not pursue teacher certification because it will require an additional year of courses.
In addition to satisfying the requirements of an academic major and a comprehensive program of courses across the natural sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities, students currently complete a rigorous series of education courses and field experiences to earn teacher certification. We believe that this educational experience prepares students well for careers in teaching, and we are proud of our graduates’ success in this field.
However, the new guidelines would require students to add two additional semesters to an already challenging four-year program.
The financial burden of an additional year to complete certification requirements could discourage many exceptional students from becoming teachers, particularly in these challenging economic times.
While we agree with the new guidelines’ focus on teaching “diverse learners” and English as a second language, we believe there are several ways to incorporate the development of these skills into the existing education curriculum. We also believe that rigorous academic preparation, particularly the broad interdisciplinary approach at the heart of the liberal arts experience, provides a superb foundation for teaching.
Two things impressed me about Riggs’s op-ed:
1). Students trained in the liberal arts are well-equipped to serve as teachers. Yes, they need courses in education (and courses in special education and second-language learning), but at a liberal arts college these courses are understood as credits that go above and beyond the liberal arts core.
2). Similarly, by suggesting that Gettysburg College students will have to take an additional year of coursework to become a public school teacher in the state of Pennsylvania, Riggs is making it clear that her college is unwilling to make any sacrifices to the liberal arts core in order to accomodate the PDE.
This illustrates clearly the real differences between a liberal arts college and comprehensive college. If I read Riggs correctly, Gettysburg will not allow the tail to wag the dog.
Pennsylvania historians and history educators: I would love to hear from you–either on the blog or privately. jfea(at)messiah(dot)edu