Westmont Magazine Beginning Dialogue on the Liberal Arts
What distinguishes a Westmont education from programs at other colleges and universities? A crucial element, of course, is that Westmont offers a Christian education. But more than that, Westmont provides a Christian liberal arts education. This combination of factors sets Westmont apart from all but a very few select schools.
What is a liberal arts education? How should such an approach to education meet the challenges of trends that increasingly focus on specialization, professional training, and distance learning? Many liberal arts colleges are grappling with these questions, but until now there have been few opportunities for dialogue among them.
Westmont has taken the lead in meeting this need by hosting a Conversation on the Liberal Arts, a two-day conference held in January. The meeting brought together distinguished scholars and members of the broader society nationwide to discuss the state of the liberal arts.
Participants attended three sessions focusing on the past, present and future of the liberal arts. Historian George Marsden of Notre Dame University led off by discussing the liberal arts tradition in America. His comments made clear that this heritage has continually transformed itself to face the changing needs of American society.
Philosopher Steven Davis of Claremont McKenna College began the dialogue on the current state of the liberal arts. He noted that a basic aim of a liberal arts education is to offer a coherent outlook on life, and that a Christian college is particularly well suited to this task. Some found this conclusion controversial, but it spurred fruitful discussion about the basic goals of a liberal arts education.
In the final session, Eva Brann of St. John’s College offered a vision of the future of the liberal arts that focused on preserving tradition. This concept provoked much discussion about what traditions should be represented in a liberal arts education as well as whether the pursuit of new knowledge has a place in such an approach.
The conference also included a joint public lecture. Robert Erburu, former chairman of Times Mirror Company, and Stephen Meier, director of the Pfaffinger Foundation, both spoke. They stressed the benefits in the professional world of the skills and values that a liberal arts education fosters. Noting that a communal learning environment and an integrated approach enables liberal arts colleges to play a crucial role in American higher education, they encouraged these institutions to maintain their distinctiveness.
By the end of the conference, participants regretted only that they lacked the time to discuss the issues further. Our conversation felt like it was just beginning.
Indeed, Westmont has taken steps to continue this dialogue by establishing the Institute for the Liberal Arts. Conceived by Provost Stan Gaede and Vice Provost Shirley Mullen, the institute has received initial funding through a generous gift.
By hosting conferences, lecture series and faculty workshops, the institute will provide a forum for discussing the liberal arts.
Westmont is in a unique position to make a powerful contribution. A liberal arts education should provide a a unified outlook that recognizes the interconnectedness of knowledge. Offering such a holistic view of education is difficult for institutions with no clear sense of the value and purpose of life. Because Westmont is firmly grounded in a Christian worldview, it can offer a clear vision of how an education is a part of a complete and meaningful life.