Reopening Discussion on the Liberal Arts
Westmont’s Institute for the Liberal Arts was launched five years ago through the efforts of many people. It was a community event. But my own convictions regarding the need for such an institute are more than 10 years old. The moment of inspiration occurred at a well-known liberal arts college where I was speaking on a recently published book. I’ll not mention names here, but it almost always shows up on everyone’s list of top-10 liberal arts colleges. After my talk, the dean invited me to lunch with about seven or eight other faculty, and we had a rather pleasant chit-chat for 20 minutes or so.
At some point (don’t remember why), I asked the group, “So what is it that makes this college special? I mean, what’s really at the core of your identity as a college?”
In moments, the room became silent. Eventually, the dean couldn’t take it any more, and said, “Well, we’re a liberal arts college.” He said it in a tone that was apologetic and weighty at the same time, as if it was supposed to end the conversation.
Because we are Christian, we have a framework for understanding the liberal arts which both inspired it in its American origins, and sustains its purpose and reason for being.
“Well, yes, I know,” I said. “But what exactly do you mean by the liberal arts?” Again, there was silence, and for a moment I wondered if we were finished with lunch. But then one brave soul finally broke in, “We don’t have a clue,” he said. “And if I told you what I thought it meant, Professor Jones across the table would disagree with me, as would most of the other faculty. Indeed, there is no consensus whatever on either what is meant by the liberal arts or how it might direct our teaching.”
For once, everyone in the room seemed to agree, and we spent the next hour talking about the state of the liberal arts in America.
My guess is, most everyone left that lunch a little depressed. But I did not. Indeed, I left that meeting with a conviction. Two of them, in fact. First, that this wonderful tradition is in danger of losing all substance and meaning. And second, that we at places like Westmont have an extraordinary opportunity at precisely this moment. Because we are Christian, we have a framework for understanding the liberal arts which both inspired it in its American origins, and sustains its purpose and reason for being. We don’t agree on every detail, but we don’t doubt its worth, either. Indeed, we think a Christian liberal arts education provides the very best foundation for life.
Out of that conviction, the Institute for the Liberal Arts was born, drawing people together from all over the nation, both scholars and lay people, who set about to reinvigorate the conversation on the liberal arts. It is open to Christians and non-Christians alike, but it is a place where values are discussed openly and ultimate ends are not off the table. Indeed, the institute has placed the big questions back where they belong: front and center. It’s a tribute to Westmont that such a thing is happening here. It’s a wonderful thing for the rest of higher education that it’s happening at all. Thanks be to God.