The definition of “a liberal course of study” is a difficult thing to pin down. The phrase seems to come up often, even to the point of overuse, without specific explanation. Historically, a liberal education was only available to the wealthy. A gentleman was free to explore the truths of the world for no reason other than the love of learning. There was no expectation, no standardized test to evaluate his progress. It was a labor of love, but it was a lifestyle that only non-laborers could afford. Ironically, Rose proposes this same ideal in his book, Lives on the Boundary as a way to combat the socioeconomic inequalities that currently exist in our educational system. He suggests that education should become more personalized, and by doing this, we can remove the barriers of language and culture, and allow every student the opportunity to succeed.
Developing a personal connection is a recurring theme throughout Rose’s book. It is through personal connections with his own teachers that he is able to overcome the circumstances of his background. Rose’s willingness to establish a personal relationship with his students propels them to succeed. Perhaps it is this same kind of connection that Rose values in a liberal course of study. A liberal course of study, rather than a formulaic curriculum, allows a student to engage a subject from his or her own perspective. A student who is personally invested in the material is likely more energetic and more successful than a student who is struggling simply to adapt. Rose touches on this need for personal investment in the current educational system. He writes, “This is why the current perception of our education need is so limited. It substitutes terror for awe. But it is not terror that fosters learning; it is hope, everyday heroics, the power of the common play of the human mind” (Rose 247).
Early in his book, Mike Rose describes experiences from his childhood after he and his family moved to Los Angeles. He was frustrated by his family’s financial circumstances, and also by the lack of a peer group in his neighborhood. Rose was initially placed in a vocational high school due to a mistake with his educational records. It certainly seems that this experience had an enormous impact on Rose’s later philosophies regarding education. It is here that he likely encountered other students who were limited, not by their potential, but simply by language and cultural barriers. After two years at a vocational school, Rose was transferred from the vocational school to a college prep curriculum, where he met an English teacher, Jack MacFarland. Rose describes his relationship with his mentor:
I certainly was not MacFarland's best student; most of the other guys in College Prep, even my fellow slackers, had better backgrounds than I did. But I worked very hard, for MacFarland had hooked me. He tapped my old interest in reading and creating stories. He gave me a way to feel special by using my mind. And he provided a role model that wasn't shaped on physical prowess alone, and something inside me that I wasn't quite aware of responded to that. (Rose 34)
Rose’s relationship with MacFarland became a catalyst in his life. With MacFarland’s help, Rose was able to overcome the disadvantages of his background and ultimately gain admission to Loyola University and later UCLA. MacFarland found a way to inspire Rose. It was not curriculum or text books that created these opportunities for Rose, it was the personal connection with his mentor.
Later in his career, while living in El Monte, Rose worked for the Teachers Corps. He worked with a number of children from economically depressed backgrounds. Many of these students had been labeled as remedial or even retarded. Through his personal relationship with each student, Rose discovered that many of these students had been incorrectly labeled do their lack of literacy skills. He was able to address each student’s needs individually, and many overcame their disadvantaged backgrounds, just as he had. His care and concern allowed him to inspire them, whether it was through a relationship with their family or a game on the basketball court. Rose writes,
Teaching, I was coming to understand, was a kind of romance. You didn't just work with words or a chronicle of dates or facts about the suspension of protein in milk. You wooed kids with these things, invited a relationship of sorts, the terms of connection being the narrative, the historical event, the balance of casein and water. Maybe nothing was "intrinsically interesting." Knowledge gained its meaning, at least initially, through a touch on the shoulder, through a conversation of the kind Jack MacFarland and Frank Carothers and the others used to have with their students. My first enthusiasm about writing came because I wanted a teacher to like me. (Rose 102)
Once again, it is an individual, personal approach that yields results. Left to an educational system that adheres strictly to a proposed curriculum, many of the students that Rose encountered would have fallen through the cracks. Rose writes about his frustration with the strict form of assessment and procedure, and his concern that it does more harm than good:
We test them and assess them - even kindergartners are given an array of readiness measures - in order to determine what they know and don't know, can and can't do. The supreme irony, though, is that the very means we use to determine those needs - and the various remedial procedures that derive from them - can wreak profound harm on our children, usually, but by no means only, those who are already behind the economic and political eight ball. (Rose 127)
Lives on the Boundary explores the challenges that underprivileged students face throughout their education. Rose identifies a lack of literacy skills, brought on by language and cultural barriers, as the overwhelming problem that these students face. His solution to this problem is to incorporate a liberal course of study, rather than a standardized one. It seems clear that Rose’s definition of “a liberal course of study” includes a personal connection, that of the teacher to the student as well as the student to the subject. This connection will help to alleviate those cultural barriers, which will in turn allow all students equal access to education.
Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America's Underprepared. New York: Free, 1989. Print.