My writing sample essay

Okay ... this it really long for a blog post. It was supposed to be this long for the assignment, though. As part of LAC (which stands for Liberal Arts Core) 301 (which everyone is supposed to take sometime in the first two terms of attendance at Marylhurst), the students submit a writing sample. From this, the writing faculty assesses the student's need (or lack thereof) for taking a writing course at the lower division level. If you meet the "outcome" requirement, you don't have to take Writing 101 (or anything like it). You prove you can already do that stuff.

I'm pleased to say ... I proved it. Here's my writing sample essay -- and my apologies to my blog readers for going over the same "agh! my unaccredited degree is making me spit nails" recurring theme again. (going over ... the same ... recurring ... again ...grrr!)

Stephanie Lillegard

LAC 301

January 31, 2009


In 1983, I graduated from Pensacola Christian College with an unaccredited degree in Elementary Education. It had taken me four years to earn this degree, and I worked hard for it. The school was three thousand miles from my home, contextualized within a culture which felt very un-American to me, and set in a hot, humid climate I found to be both smothering and enflaming. The education I got at this small “Bible Belt” college was in every way the opposite of a liberal education.

In the twenty-five years since then, everything about my life has called to me to go further, dig deeper, and spread wider. The great expanse of human history and experience has always seemed just outside my view. Little by little, through a strong marriage with a liberally educated and intelligent man, through the rearing of our children and our educating them at home, and through the reading of libraries full of books, watching film of all genres from all cultures, and hearing more music, viewing more artwork, and having conversations with a wider and wider variety of people, I have been getting closer to my own entry into the great conversation of humankind. I am now ready for my own formalized, accredited, acknowledged degree in the Liberal Arts.

Getting to this place in my life has been a deliberate and conscious journey. Because the man I married had so much more formal education and so much wider an experience of the world than I brought into the marriage with me, and because we took on the task of educating our own children at home, the nature of education itself has been an ongoing topic of conversation in this house. I have been hammering out my own answers to the question, what is education when it is the best it can be? Without a full answer to where this train of thought might be headed, I decided to take on the job of getting my own children ready to encounter as much of the world as they might someday wish to. I began the process of their liberal educations before I could say that I had defined or earned my own.

It is true that many homeschoolers keep their children at home because of fear. These mothers and fathers evidently wish that they too could hide from society and make a kind of house-sized utopia, and so they set about doing the next best thing. They make one for their children. Its confines are narrow, its rules are rigid, and its curriculum is very carefully monitored. These are the homeschoolers who do not allow books into their homes unless the parents have read them first and approved of them. The naughty bits of famous artwork are covered with paper or colored over with pen, and all music must meet the utopian idea the parents are trying to produce in their homes.

Escape from the wider world was not our notion. Instead, we decided that we would ground our children in the kind of childhood that is steeped in long hours of imaginative invention and well versed in the delights of a good story as authors like A.A. Milne and E. Nesbit knew how to make it. We wanted them to have personal experiences with the natural world and enough freedom to experiment indoors and out. We deliberately trained and nurtured their ability to pay attention, follow an argument, see other people as people instead of reacting to them as functionaries of a system or representatives from various groups or subcultures, and we encouraged our children to practice the noble arts of self-control and humility in the face of large ideas. We wanted them to be able to see and to solve problems. In short, we wanted to introduce them to the rest of the world and get them ready for their own relationships with it.

Personal experience of my own college education had taught me that a narrow education is too small to be of much use in the wider world. On the other hand, observation and conversations with my husband taught me the many values of a liberal education. Teaching my own children then gave me some answers to my questions about education in general, and a liberal college education in particular. What I have learned through my own life’s experience has verified the ideas in the William Cronon essay, “Qualities of the Liberally Educated Person.” (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008)

In his essay, Cronon asserts that the qualities of liberally educated persons are these: (1) They know how to listen and hear; (2) They read and they understand; (3) They can talk with anyone; (4) They can write clearly and persuasively and movingly; (5) They can solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems; (6) Educated people respect rigor, not so much for its own sake, but as a way of seeking truth; (7) They practice respect and humility, tolerance, and self-criticism; (8) They understand how to get things done in the world; (9) They nurture and empower the people around them; (10) They follow E.M. Forster’s injunction: “Only connect.”

Cronon’s idea is that all of the various qualities of a liberally educated person culminate in and are demonstrated by Forster’s motto. Connection to the world is, to his mind, both motivation and reward, means and end. This idea was worked out on a daily basis during our years of homeschooling. It turned out to be enough that we kept one eye on the wider world while the smaller people in the family grew into adults. It was enough to grant those people their own introductions and then allow them to form their own relationships. Without having the specific goal of higher education in mind during those early years, we made an atmosphere of confidence and curiosity that did finally spur all three of our adult offspring to pursue college educations of their own.

But I still had the remains of my earlier questions, if not for my children, then for myself. I still wanted to know if a genuine liberal education be acquired outside the world of academia. If it could, I wondered if I had done it by means of providing education for my own children. And if I had done it, then why did a nagging idea of returning to school for my own degree persist?

I grew up after the modern feminists had fought fierce battles, and I grew up on the West Coast of the USA, where women wear jeans and expect to be treated fairly and respectfully. My assumptions about my own intelligence and academic ability, and about my equality with all humans – male and female, were, I thought, as fully a part of my psyche and self-concept as my height, ethnic heritage, and ability to play the piano. When I went to college the first time, I did not believe there was any shred of girlish reluctance to take my place in the world. I was wrong.

The 1977 speech by Adrienne Rich, delivered at the convocation of Douglass College contains the answers to my confusion and my long-held hesitation in the face of my own Liberal Arts degree. I was not able to articulate this vague sense of restlessness and frustration until I read Rich’s speech. It is true that I still retain a strong gender-neutral bias in academic matters and do not honestly believe that history, science, or anything else in the academic world has been given to us any more falsely by men than it would have been by women, but I do have to admit to myself that I have been guilty of accepting the idea that my own formal higher education is something I might someday be allowed to “receive” and not something I must “claim.” Adrienne Rich rightly points out that there is a vast gulf between those two ideas, and that the “difference is that between acting and being acted upon.”

Adrienne Rich was born in 1929. (Poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poets) She was an adult long before I formed my ideas about women, education, academia, and the equality of the sexes. She fought the gender-bias battles I never had to see, and she stands in the position of emissary and elder stateswoman for me. According to Poets.org, “It was in 1973, in the midst of the feminist and civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and her own personal distress that Rich wrote Diving into the Wreck, a collection of exploratory and often angry poems, which garnered her the National Book Award in 1974.” In 1974, I was in the eighth grade. I do not remember the battles of those days, but I am old enough to remember the anger.

The angry conversations women were having in the 1970’s happened while I was turning into a woman myself, and I rejected their anger. It did not seem to apply to me or to my situation. However, I am older and wiser now. I have realized how much I inherited from those women, and I have raised a fierce and energetic daughter I know would have had a far different life if she had grown up either in Rich’s day or in my own. Rich and her peers paved the way so that my daughter’s generation does not need to be told, at least not as much as I do, that “responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.” (Rich) This is another thing I taught my kids before I knew that I had learned it myself. My daughter does not hold herself in contempt, belittle herself, or assume that her education will be something she might receive unless she herself claims it.

In 1983, I graduated from an unaccredited institution, where I had received an education carefully structured to be of use within a very limited world. I then married a man who brought to me the conversation of history, philosophy, literature, and film, and I was eager to join in. I was determined to make such an education possible for my children, and with an eye to their futures, I prepared them to take part in as much of the wide world as they might decide to claim for themselves. Now, twenty-five years later, I am finally ready to claim my own education. My degree this time will be accredited, in the Liberal Arts tradition of participation in the wider world of Arts and Ideas. What I propose to do now, in pursuit of a Liberal Arts degree is to live an answer to William Cronon’s call. “Only connect. It’s the core project. Without it, all else fails.” I might add that with it, all things are possible.

“Adrienne Rich.” Poets.org. January 30, 2008. <http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/49>

Cronon, William. “Qualities of the Liberally Educated Person.” Learning for Our Common Health: How an Academic Focus on HIV/AIDS Will Improve Education and Health, Ed. Wm. David Burns. Washington, D.C: Association of American Colleges and Universities. 1999.

Rich, Adrienne. 1977. Speech delivered at the convocation of Douglass College.

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