Cover Story

The Sciences as Liberal Arts?

The Institute for the Liberal Arts explains and explores the elusive liberal arts

Students in a lab photographSuppose Jay Leno asked people on the street, “What are the liberal arts?” for one of his “Jay Walking” segments. Would anyone be able to answer? Would the audience know if they were right?

Now suppose Jay showed up at a university and posed the same question. Would he have any better luck?

Although colleges often describe themselves as liberal arts institutions, it’s likely that many people on such campuses lack a clear understanding of this philosophy of education.

In fact, the liberal arts can be a subject for ridicule. “A graduate with an engineering degree asks, ‘How does it work?’ A graduate with an accounting degree asks, ‘How much does it cost?’ A graduate with a liberal arts degree asks, ‘Do you want fries with that?’”

The Institute for the Liberal Arts at Westmont works to correct such misperceptions by educating society about the liberal arts. Through its annual conference and journal, the institute explores essential issues and exposes common fallacies. For example, the 2005 meeting focused on “Beyond Two Cultures: The Sciences as Liberal Arts.” “This conference addressed theoretical issues, such as how the sciences help us interpret the meaning and value of our lives, as well as pragmatic questions,” says Chris Hoeckley, who directs the institute. “These questions included: What is the best way to teach the sciences as a part of a liberal arts curriculum? How can academic culture overcome the persistent cultural divide between scientists and humanists?”

“Too often the liberal arts are identified with the humanities, marginalizing the sciences in a liberal arts education. But scientific inquiry has tremendous impact on how we see ourselves and the meaning and purpose of our lives — questions essential to a liberal arts education.” - Chris Hoeckley, director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts at Westmont

Science photographPart of the institute’s work is defining the liberal arts and explaining their value. In the first “Conversation on the Liberal Arts” in January 2001, Robert Erburu drew on recent events to accomplish this goal. Referring to the 2000 presidential election decided by a split Supreme Court vote, he said, “Here was a national crisis that could only be understood in an interdisciplinary way. It combined elements of history, political science, economics, sociology, constitutional law and other disciplines. The informed citizen needed to think critically, utilizing the broadest possible perspective, with the intellectual flexibility to evaluate independently and grapple with new ideas. We all needed, in short, the very skills that are effectively developed through liberal [arts] learning.” In his presentation, Erburu, former chairman of the board of Times Mirror Co., called on liberal arts colleges to “do a much better job of conveying their distinctiveness and the advantages they offer to the individual student and to society as a whole.”

The Institute for the Liberal Arts at Westmont has embraced this challenge. It began in 2000 on a trial basis with seed money from a generous donor. The college has made a commitment to establish it permanently and is raising a $2 million endowed fund to support it (see related article on page 2). “Our goal is to ensure the future vitality of the liberal arts tradition in America,” Hoeckley says. “We are one of the few institutions making this kind of commitment.”

Hoeckley considers this work important because the liberal arts offer so much to students and to society. “A liberal arts education provides students with highly devel-oped, transferable skills such as critical thinking, effective communication and creative problem solving,” he says. “The curriculum encour-ages students to develop character and become active and informed citizens.”

Integration is another product of the liberal arts. By taking classes in a wide range of disciplines, students learn to make connections among apparently unrelated information. Breadth and connection are important liberal arts hallmarks.

A liberal arts curriculum takes a holistic approach to education. “They bring intellectual, social, recreational and spiritual considerations into one context,” Hoeckley says. “At the same time, they are communal, encouraging learning among people in a residential community.”

At research universities, faculty concentrate on conducting scholarly research and extending knowledge. Instructors at vocational schools provide training for specific jobs. But professors at liberal arts colleges have a different focus: teaching students. To be effective in the classroom, they certainly engage in research in their field. But their primarily goal is helping students develop the critical skills that will enable them to succeed in a wide variety of careers.

In fact, a liberal arts education meets a need because employers want to hire people who can think clearly, adapt in a rapidly changing environment and transfer skills and information from one situation to another that is completely different.

Liberal Arts Conference photograph“As our American society and world culture become more and more complex, we need citizens, policy makers and leaders who are flexible and able to meet the demands, opportunities and dangers with well-rounded backgrounds that enable them to make informed decisions that lead to peace and justice for all,” Hoeckley adds.

“Because many people find the term ‘liberal arts’ elusive and even boring, engaging them in the conversation about the nature of a liberal arts education is a critical component in helping them to understand and be excited about the personal value of a liberal arts education,” Hoeckley says. “This is why we started our annual conversations.”

Participants in these conferences have found them helpful and provocative. “Your conversations are valuable in part precisely because they remind us that we can’t be complacent and must all keep working to promote the kind of education that, in Mary Pat McPherson’s words, ‘Makes your mind a better place to live,’” one individual wrote on an evaluation form.

“I got a glimpse of the wide variety of expressions and practices of faith represented in the papers and discussions . . . [the] many different ways the common concern with educating for justice had taken root.” - Walter Reed, Emory University

“I really appreciated the opportunity to talk with faculty and administrators from so many different institutions — large and small, secular and Christian, Eastern and Midwestern as well as Western … It was interesting for me to meet so many people from faith-based colleges,” says Kristin Fossum, assistant dean at Pomona College.

Classroom discussion photograph“I think the work in which you are engaged is terribly important and these conferences make a wonderful contribution to our thinking,” says Richard Hughes, distinguished professor of religion and director of the Center for Faith and Learning at Pepperdine University.

Robert Sloan, outgoing president of Baylor University, took special interest in one of the institute’s goals. “I believe that the Institute for the Liberal Arts is advancing a very important aspect of what higher education should be,” he said. “We at Baylor are very interested in the seventh [goal], ‘To bring faith in to the conversation on liberal arts education.’ I look forward to reading this issue of the journal in the near future and hearing what the institute has to say about this very important topic.”

“The conversation I was part of gave me a new perspective on the intersection of liberal arts education and religious faith and practice — lots of new perspectives, in fact, given the wonderful variety of institutions and people you had assembled,” says Walter Reed, director of the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University. “I came away with a much less simplistic view of the tensions and conflicts between a broadly secularized academia and a sharply focused set of faith communities, as well as a greater appreciation for the often unacknowledged common ground they share.”

Art student and professor photograph“The liberal arts tradition has always assumed that knowledge can be a coherent whole, that education for the whole person builds strong character and that education can lead to a fuller, richer life,” Hoeckley says. In the past, colleges viewed the liberal arts through a religious framework. Few maintain that perspective today. But Westmont’s Christian commitment shapes its educational philosophy and gives it a unique appreciation for the liberal arts.

“Westmont is well positioned at the intersection of two academic communities: the liberal arts tradition and faith-based higher education,” Hoeckley says. “This enables us to invite others to reflect together on how various underlying frameworks inform our respective educational goals. We hope to provide a hospitable space for dialogue about the connection between issues of faith, ethics and meaning with issues of education among people from diverse backgrounds who share a common commitment to the liberal arts tradition.”

Choose an Education, Not Just a College

When high school students decide to apply to a college, do they know what kind of education it offers? Do they understand the value and distinctives of a liberal arts curriculum? For underserved students — those from low-income backgrounds, underrepresented ethnic groups or families that haven’t attended college — the answer may be, “No.” The Institute for the Liberal Arts at Westmont will begin reaching out to these students in the fall through an innovative Liberal Arts Ambassadors program.

A $50,000 matching grant from the Foundation for Independent Higher Education and the UPS National Venture Fund supports the collaborative project between Westmont and the University of La Verne. Underserved students from the two schools will work through existing college preparation programs to explain the benefits of a liberal arts education to junior high and high school students. Westmont is raising the matching funds required to implement the program.

Students who attend liberal arts colleges are more likely to graduate than those who enroll at public universities. They receive other benefits as well that many underserved students lack because they never considered attending a liberal arts school. At the same time, the college students serving as ambassadors learn more about their education by taking a class on the history and philosophy of the liberal arts. They also develop a sense of community with other ambassadors and become skilled in making presentations. The curriculum, “Before You Choose a College, Choose an Education,” will be available to all the institutions belonging to the Independent Colleges of Southern California.

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