Westmont Magazine Leadership and the Liberal Arts
Education to Last a Lifetime
Gayle D. Beebe
President, Westmont College
Westmont’s history overflows with people animated by their faith, motivated by their intellect and willing to embrace deeply held commitments that inspire a lifetime of learning, leadership and service. Cultivating this commitment through the partnership of our educational program and student life activities outside the classroom has given us a unique and enduring role in preparing generations of leaders who now serve in every sphere of society.
Why? Because a LIBERAL ARTS education embedded in the Christian intellectual tradition invites us to see the interrelationship of all knowledge and to learn how to reach into every area of human learning to find new solutions to vexing problems.
A LIBERAL ARTS education requires that we develop intellectual humility as we discover the vastness of human learning. Westmont’s approach to Christian leadership and education draws upon an intellectual tradition reaching back 2,500 years to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The ancient world studied the LIBERAL ARTS as a means to address the fundamental questions of life. Beginning with Clement of Alexandria (150–215 A.D.), Christian scholarship adopted a perspective that valued the LIBERAL ARTS as central in cultivating understanding of our individual life, our corporate responsibilities, our relationship to God and our ultimate quest to find meaning and purpose in life.
In keeping with this tradition, Westmont offers an educational experience that prepares graduates to lead and serve in every sphere of modern society. Our academic and cocurricular experiences reveal our core commitments to the twin rails of rigorous academics and deep love for God. These enduring commitments have guided the college since our founding in 1937. Today these undergird the five planks of our mission statement: our LIBERAL ARTS curriculum, Christian identity, residential experience, undergraduate focus and global outlook.
Writing near the end of the 4th century in the twilight of the Roman Empire — at a time of great uncertainty and challenge — St. Augustine articulates a philosophy of education that anticipated Westmont’s own approach. Significantly, Augustine observed that we’re both great and wretched; we possess incredible capacities to do good, but we battle internal conflicts that often lead us astray. This perspective of the human condition has profound implications for pursuing wisdom and advancing the common good.
Out of that self-understanding, and again in the spirit of St. Augustine, we advocate a three-fold approach to making sense of life: what happens to us, what happens inside of us and what happens because of us. This progression, experienced through education, requires an inner capacity for self-awareness and self-correction that lends itself well to the Christian understanding and view of life.
From the beginning, Ruth Kerr and President Wallace Emerson resolved that Westmont should cut a distinctive path in higher education that flows from this nuanced understanding of the human condition and the interrelation of all forms of knowledge. Crafting a vision for the college that offers a rigorous academic program while cultivating a deep love for God, President Emerson set us on a track of educational excellence that endures.
Today, in spite of the ongoing and emerging challenges of our times, we find doors of opportunity opening wide for Westmont to enlarge our impact in both our local and global communities. We embrace this pivotal moment to strengthen and extend the reach and influence of the college. In so doing, we turn our attention to recruiting great people in every area of the college, establishing excellent facilities and building innovative programs that will propel Westmont’s thoughtful approach to Christian leadership to greater influence throughout the world.
In the midst of pressing local and global challenges, Westmont is blessed with several opportunities to multiply our positive contributions. The array of global needs for individuals and across societies calls out for Westmont to respond creatively and responsibly. Grounded in faith and fidelity to our enduring mission, we’ve been prepared to step into several extraordinary opportunities, including launching new academic programs and majors, expanding into the healing arts with compassion and care in addressing real needs in our local and regional communities, dramatically increasing Westmont’s footprint in downtown Santa Barbara and committing ourselves to solve the challenge and complexity of our cultural moment with people and programs that foster nuanced, effective, solutions-focused leadership.
In his book “The Evidence Liberal Arts Needs,” Richard Detweiler invites us to consider the dual responsibility of living lives of consequence and accomplishment characterized by inquiry, curiosity and commitment. To capture the essence of this work, it’s important to understand the rich and enduring legacy of the LIBERAL ARTS and to commit ourselves again to the unique role and expression we make at Westmont. Towards the end of the volume, Detweiler notes, “a bona fide LIBERAL ARTS education is impactful — fulfilling the common good and serving the future of both the individual and society — when it educates people for lives of consequence, inquiry, and accomplishment...through the study of the full span of human knowledge, intellectual challenge and the exploration of different perspectives on issues of significance to humanity” (page 228).
In the year ahead, we intend to undertake a book-length project that seeks to embed every area of human learning in our Christian understanding of theLIBERAL ARTS. We expect to blend our commitment to rigorous academics and a deep love of God in a way that animates every area of human learning and provides an array of guiding thoughts and ideas as we move deeper into the 21st century.
This fall, we’ll celebrate our 85th anniversary. By business standards, we’re old and established, but by college and university standards, we’ve only just begun. An array of exciting challenges and opportunities on the horizon will call forth our best effort — and the best effort of every generation of Westmonters that comes after us.
But this is our time, and it presents a huge challenge as our American society, and indeed our entire global community, faces a very complex array of natural and human challenges in the history of civilization. What a time to be alive; what a time to be engaged in the life and purpose of an education that lasts a lifetime.