An ‘Honorable’ Mention
Ursinus senior’s honors project examines benefits of a
liberal arts education in grades K-12
by Sarah Hojsak
“I have so many books that they don’t all fit in my book bag,” Olivia Keithley said, laughing.
The senior politics and peace and social justice studies major was referring to the many sources she has spent months compiling for her honors paper.
Keithley also has a minor in education, which was part of her inspiration for her honors research.
As a student in Dr. Stephanie Mackler’s philosophy of liberal arts education class during her junior year, Keithley became interested in the impact of teaching and learning the liberal arts.
Her project seeks to discuss why the K-12 public education system should follow a liberal arts model.
“It’s kind of a philosophical argument,” said Keithley. “It’s looking at something that has really historically been in higher education, and how it can be, why it should be brought into the K-12 classroom.”
Keithley sais she has always known that she wanted to go into education, eventually deciding on the world of education policy.
“I really wanted to go into education reform in public schools; public schools are really important to me,” Keithley said.
Though the education department at Ursinus is small, with only three full-time professors, Keithley praised the department’s merits.
As an education minor who is not on the teacher track, she said, “I’ve been really lucky here. I’ve been able to take a lot of education special topics classes in different interest areas.”
Keithley is co-advised by Dr. Mackler and Dr. Seamus Mulryan.
Though Dr. Mackler is on sabbatical this semester, Keithley worked closely with her last semester.
She began writing the paper this semester, and Dr. Mulryan has been advising her through that process.
“While Keithley’s project is aimed primarily at K-12 education, her project is also relevant to the ongoing conversations about Ursinus’ core curriculum and, more notably, CIE, as it promises to provide an informed analysis of what a liberal arts education is and what it ought to strive for,” Dr. Mulryan said.
Keithley agrees that exploring liberal arts education has caused her to think more deeply about her own education.
“I’m kind of thinking about what I’m doing, like why did I decide to devote four years of my life to getting a liberal arts higher education degree? When you think about the purpose and the meaning of what you’re doing, it adds a lot to your life,” Keithley said.
“In a weird way, it kind of brings everything full circle, because I’m writing about liberal arts education while I’m experiencing liberal arts education, too,” she added.
Keithley pointed out that the definition of liberal arts education is not always as simple as students may think.
“People throw the phrase around all the time, like ‘This is what liberal arts education is,’ and everyone seems to have their very own definition. It’s always very interesting to know where someone is grounding a definition…where it’s coming from,” she said.
This inspired Keithley to explore the history of liberal arts education and spark a discussion about the ideas behind it and what it actually means.
She began her research last semester by reading dozens of books. About halfway through the semester, she decided on a thesis.
“It really came out of exploring all of the ideas, all of the main arguments in the dialogue surrounding liberal arts education,” she said about the process of creating a thesis.
“I feel like I have such a thorough grounding in the topic because our approach was so much about just reading everything, regardless of whether or not I was going to agree with it or disagree,” said Keithley.
Keithley added, “When you’re reading a lot and you’re synthesizing what you’re reading, you begin to see where you fall in the argument.”
“Honors let me do it… let me really figure out the thoughts behind liberal arts education, and put that into conversation with public education and why I think the two have to go together,” Keithley said. “I’ve had a wonderful experience.”