Westmont Magazine The Content and Context of the Liberal Arts Meet in the Faculty

Lisa DeBoer

Lisa DeBoer, professor of art history, is glad someone is investigating the value of the LIBERAL ARTS. “Richard Detweiler’s book is a timely stimulus to conversation,” she says. “I especially appreciate discussing his work in book groups with staff members as well as fellow faculty.

“The general outline to the study has a lot of promise, but I’m not sure the data he devised is as strong as we would like to think. He asked broad, concrete questions to link educational outcomes to specific behaviors, but it’s hard to assess what goes on in people’s hearts and heads as to what those behaviors actually mean.”

DeBoer appreciates the finding that students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit from the kinds of educational experience available at LIBERAL ARTS colleges — and the benefits persist.

The book’s emphasis on both content and context coincides with what the pandemic has taught us, she says. “We’ve learned that in-person education is an entirely different animal than distance education. We now have data supporting that learning in person is more effective and meaningful. Parents want their kids back in school because they’re not learning online.”

While De Boer applauds Detweiler for talking about context, she disagrees with his conclusion that it’s more important than content. “Content and context come together in the faculty,” she says. “Students meet us through our content. We interact with our students through our disciplines; students encounter different ways of thinking through the methodologies of our disciplines. Teachers embody and enact the content. What we do in the classroom matters.”

DeBoer says Detweiler seems to assume that a sense of coherence and unity exists among the various disciplines when he talks about a “span of study.” “But he doesn’t explain how art might relate to disciplines such as psychology and economics,” she says. “In his view, the LIBERAL ARTS could become a series of distribution requirements without an overarching framework. As Christians, however, we believe that God created the world to make sense, to be coherent and functional despite the presence of sin. Our Christian commitments lead us to expect that what we do in one discipline relates to others. For example, in learning about art, it’s not just about the aesthetics, but also about psychology, and theology, and economics, or literary trends.

“And at Westmont, I can confidently refer to what students learn in Old Testament when teaching about ancient art, or their knowledge of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation when discussing art from that era. I can bring in these historical aspects and not just focus on art’s aesthetic qualities. The LIBERAL ARTS give us a rich and complicated context that connects to lots of different domains in the world.”