Beyond the Basics: Achieving a Liberal Education for All Children

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), schools have ramped up instructional time in reading and math but are spending less time teaching things like history, social studies, science, and the arts-subjects not tested under the federal law (see here and here). Unfortunately, this narrowing of the curriculum is happening at the same time employers all over the world are seeking the most competent, creative, and innovative people on the planet with a very high level of preparation in reading, writing, speaking, mathematics, science, literature, and the arts-as was highlighted in a recent presentation on Capitol Square by Marc Tucker of the National Center for Education and the Economy (see here).

Beyond the Basics: Achieving a Liberal Education for All Children examines the need to restore the liberal arts to the K-12 curriculum through a volume of papers-most presented last December at a conference in Washington, D.C.-assembled by Chester E. Finn Jr. and Diane Ravitch (both Fordham Institute board members). It stresses the need to ensure productive and responsible citizens who can think critically and are prepared for work and a satisfying life. There has been an age-old calling for a "broad, liberal arts education"-Aristotle said it is necessary for one to act "nobly" and Benjamin Franklin said it is needed to cultivate "the best capacities" in humans. Finn and Ravitch call for its revival in the context of our fast-paced modern world: where "one may well speak with his Hispanic neighbor before leaving for the office, bargain with a Nigerian taxicab driver, then negotiate a marketing deal via teleconference with counterparts in Tokyo, Sao Paolo, or Moscow, one needs to broaden his base of learning."

Finn and Ravitch note the harmful and unintended consequence of NCLB in creating a "curricular squeeze" and caution against the inclination to substitute "kill and drill" for "problem solving." They also warn against too much STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education without enough flowers (i.e., history, foreign language, arts, geography, etc.). (Finn and Ravitch also make the case for flowers in a commentary in the August 8th Wall Street Journal.)

This volume offers some worthwhile recommendations for ensuring that every child receives a solid liberal arts education, including recruiting talented teachers who themselves enjoyed a rigorous liberal arts education; arming them with a solid, content-rich curriculum; and holding them accountable for preparing students broadly, not just in "basic skills." All those interested in the rebirth of the liberal arts curriculum should check out the report here.

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