Westmont Magazine A Future with a History
How the Liberal Arts Prepare Us to Speak to the Cultural Moment
by President Gayle D. Beebe
“We made it!” This cryptic message from Ernest Shackleton to his wife back in England told her he’d survived in Antarctica. It also sums up our entire academic year. This issue of our magazine presents the amazing story of numerous individuals and college initiatives that defied the odds in the midst of our global pandemic, including the most improbable run of our women’s basketball team, who won the National Championship. You’ll read stories of the unexpected generosity of our friends, some incredible and amazing accomplishments by our distinguished faculty, and the efforts that continue to extend the reach and influence of the college in important ways consistent with our mission. It also includes pictures and articles of the most original Commencement in the history of Westmont! Finally, this issue speaks to the ongoing essential work underway as we strive to make progress as a college and a wider community on issues of justice, reconciliation and diversity.
In the past 15 months, we’ve maintained our fidelity to our guiding mission while learning how to innovate and adjust to important challenges on every front. No corner of the college has been untouched. Social, cultural, political and economic realities that have rocked the country have challenged us. Nancy Koehn, a Harvard historian and this year’s speaker for our virtual President’s Breakfast, highlights the important responsibility of paying attention to our shifting circumstances so we can innovate in meaningful and successful ways when difficulties arise from uncharted circumstances.
Later this month, we’ll convene our virtual Lead Where You Stand Leadership Conference and enjoy another Day with David Brooks. In preparation, I’ve been reading his book “The Second Mountain,” which invites us to move beyond the dichotomy of the resume virtues versus the eulogy virtues to embrace the meaning and joy that comes from committing ourselves to purposes that will outlive us.
The book encourages us to make four commitments that fundamentally shape us as the kind of people who can discover and live the good life: vocation, marriage, faith and community. This question of the good life first arose in the pre-Christian era when the Greeks and Romans wondered: What is the good life? Who is a good person? How do I become the kind of person who can find and fulfill this longing for the good life?
Jesus and the Early Church gave the most original response, and the religious and cultural resources they crafted continue to this day. In the past 2,000 years, Christians have identified and expanded important insights, but the core defining reality of our life anchored to the life of Christ remains the activating principle for all we do at Westmont. We continue our enduring commitment to the liberal arts as the best way to learn how to learn so we can maintain vital engagement with the challenges each new generation faces.
By anchoring our mission to the liberal arts, we connect with a 2,500-year history dating back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In the ancient world, the liberal arts provided a graduated curriculum that mirrored human development. Students began by mastering the verbal arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric. They then studied the mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. The ancient world considered the liberal arts as a means to something else, never as knowledge simply for the sake of knowledge. They trained their minds in particular subjects to transfer their intellectual training to addressing and answering the great questions of life.
Beginning with Clement of Alexandria (150-215), Christians articulated the liberal arts according to a four-fold progression: first, acquiring language skills. Second, mastering math skills. Third, considering the right nature of ethics, the proper role of politics, and how to subjugate our unruly passions. Finally, after training the mind and guiding the passions, turning to a proper study of God.
In the classical scheme of the liberal arts, the Trivium, or the verbal arts, concerns the ordering of experience and the means of expressing our knowledge of human experience. In the Trivium, the discipline of grammar trains the mind and hones the spirit so we can both discern and express our knowledge of human nature. Subsequently, logic establishes a regular and coherent frame for thinking, while rhetoric presents models and methods of expression and ultimately of persuasion. The Quadrivium, built on the Trivium, includes the mathematical arts. Arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music complete the development of the human mind.
Earlier, Aristotle emphasized that we shouldn’t look for the same measure of precision in all things, but for the level appropriate to each discipline. In this manner, the liberal arts illustrate how we learn the measure of truth appropriate to each category. Later, in the 11th and early 12th century, Hugh of St. Victor amplified this understanding by showing how individuals can work out their salvation by combining a high view of the liberal arts with productive labor.
In the Didascalican, Hugh argues that the technological improvement of life on earth stems from our partial restoration from the Fall. For Hugh, technology and commerce help return us to our proper relationship to God and creation by improving our earthly life so we can move closer to our original condition in paradise. In this way, Hugh expands the original Greek and Early Church notion of the liberal arts beyond the philosophic arts of Plato and Augustine and the practical arts of Cicero by adding a third component: the productive arts. These arts mirror God’s creative activity and show the industrious intelligence of humans. Further, they help lead us to God since they require training and discipline that focuses our mind and controls our passions. Thus, the productive arts teach us to love God, to discipline the self and to gain mastery of particular skills so we can make a creative contribution to God’s will for our world.
From the earliest days of its formation, the Christian liberal arts tradition has prepared students for the mastery of human learning as well as the highest form of exploration: the study of God. Early on, Clement of Alexandria amplified that being trained to think properly in any area of human knowledge led to training to think rightly about God. This approach to education has always held that the transcendent vision of education is preparing every follower of God with the understanding and resources necessary to make an ultimate contribution that will outlive us.
In the long and storied history of our faith and our philosophy of education, St. Augustine set forth in his concluding work, “The City of God,” the important distinction that human history features people who were guided either by self-love or oriented by their love of God and were either self- willed or aligned their will with the will of God.
This insight continues to rivet our attention today. As our society careens through the vicissitudes of our cultural moment, Robert Putnam’s work, “Upswing,” identifies six essential elements shaping our modern mentality that document the collective erosion from common ideals to cultural narcissism: economic inequality, political polarization, social isolation, cultural narcissism, race and gender. In each case, he summarizes 125 years of data to demonstrate the U-curve that shows a gradual climb into greater interdependence and cooperation followed by a deep descent into greater independence and egoism. He has labelled it an “I-We-I curve.”
At the heart of our work as a college lies the belief that we exist not only to speak to the cultural moment but also to prepare students for lives of leadership and service that will affect and change the world in transformative ways that will endure for generations to come. As we prepare for the year that lies ahead, we do so with a view to the wider horizon opening before us while remaining ever mindful of the important work God has called us to do.
The Beebe family celebrates the graduation of their third Westmont alum. Left to right: Elizabeth ’17, Anna ’15, and Rick ’21.