Westmont Magazine The Liberating Arts

Student on a boat

How do you define the liberal arts? A vast variety of approaches and answers — combined with widespread uncertainty and confusion — make this a challenging task.

In a new book, “The Evidence Liberal Arts Needs: Lives of Consequence, Inquiry, and Accomplishment,” Richard Detweiler acknowledges the lack of a generally accepted description. The former college president and professor decided to develop his own, taking a systematic, three-pronged approach. First he collected mission statements from hundreds of LIBERAL ARTS colleges. Then he reviewed the history of the LIBERAL ARTS and its evolution. Finally, he conducted research, surveying college graduates about their educational experience, their work and their practices. He notes that popular opinion descries the LIBERAL ARTS as “expensive, impractical and worthless.” But his findings support his conclusion that it’s “the most practical form of education for the individual and for society” (page 223).

Detweiler, founder and managing director of HigherEdImpact, set out to discover if graduates who’ve studied the LIBERAL ARTS lead more successful or better lives. His book catalogs both the practices of the LIBERAL ARTS and the goals institutions have stated for their graduates. He discovered several common characteristics of a LIBERAL ARTS education:

  • »  It serves a common purpose of value to both society and the individual.

  • »  It involves the context of study — the nature of the educational environment — as well as the content of study or the courses taken (Preface xi-xii).

The book summarizes desired outcomes for graduates of LIBERAL ARTS institutions:

  • »  Achieving individual success and fulfillment.

  • »  Creating value for society by cultivating leadership and altruism.

  • »  Providing intellectual value such as continuing study and cultural involvement (Preface xii).

Long an advocate for the LIBERAL ARTS, Detweiler is president emeritus of the Great Lakes Colleges Association and founder of the Global Liberal Arts Alliance, which includes 30 LIBERAL ARTS colleges. He argues that the purpose of education should extend beyond a benefit to the individual to “contribute to the well-being of humanity as a whole” (page 74). American education upheld this belief until research universities switched their focus to narrow, technical vocational training. His research shows that this practical emphasis results in higher-paying positions immediately after graduation but fails to provide greater long-term economic benefits or provide as much support for a meaningful and fulfilling life.

Detweiler identifies the content of the LIBERAL ARTS as majors in the humanities, social sciences and sciences with students taking at least half their courses outside of their principal field of study. “Broad, largely non-specialized knowledge develops understanding and thinking in ways that help people to be effective in their lives and in their society,” he writes (page 74). He values the “span” of knowledge, which not only features a wide array of disciplines but provides connections between them, like the span of a bridge.

This context “involves a community-based, per- sonal and engaging learn- ing environment” (page 74). According to his research, participating in this kind of LIBERAL ARTS learning community helps create significant outcomes for graduates and for society.

Sound familiar? In many ways, Detweiler describes the kind of education Westmont has offered for nearly 85 years. While his research provides helpful support for the value of the LIBERAL ARTS, his description omits a key characteristic of Westmont’s approach: he completely ignores Christian LIBERAL ARTS colleges and the contributions Christians have made throughout the centuries in developing the scope of LIBERAL ARTS education.

People at Westmont have been reading and discussing Detweiler’s book, which has attracted attention in higher education. “It gives us an opportunity to talk about our understanding of the Christian LIBERAL ARTS and why we remain committed to this form of education,” says President Gayle D. Beebe.

Beebe draws on a Latin word to describe the LIBERAL ARTS: libertas, the liberating arts. Today, the world “liberal” carries a political connotation completely absent from the historical understanding and development of the LIBERAL ARTS.

“From the earliest days of its formation, the Christian liberal arts tradition has prepared students to master human learning to move on to the highest form of exploration: the study of God,” Beebe says. “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 affirms 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, liberating Christians to devote their time and attention to knowing God better.

“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.

“In the ‘Didascalican,’ Hugh of St. Victor argued in the 12th century that the technological improvement of life on earth stems from our partial restoration from the fall. 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.

“Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, once observed that a LIBERAL ARTS education provides the best possible preparation because it teaches us how to take discrete areas of knowledge and place them into a meaningful whole. The LIBERAL ARTS teach us how to think. They teach us an approach to learning that invites us to see the interrelationship of all knowledge. They cultivate intellectual humility as we discover the wide, vast universe of human knowledge. This recognition invites a lifetime of learning.”

Beebe thinks that Detweiler’s book, despite its omissions, invites the college community into an engaging conversation. “He reminds us of the central themes of the LIBERAL ARTS,” Beebe says. “We’re participating in constructive interaction. I appreciate his depiction of the progression and uniqueness of American higher education anchored in the LIBERAL ARTS. He helps us recognize the malleable nature of the LIBERAL ARTS. There is a core and a vitality — the trunk of a tree and its many branches. To keep the trunk healthy, the tree must grow a vast supply of new limbs.”

Westmont brings its LIBERAL ARTS commitment and approach to its newest programs: data analytics, engineering and nursing. “We’ve embraced the opportunities to embed these programs in the LIBERAL ARTS,” Beebe says.

Groups of faculty and staff have been reading and discussing Detweiler’s work. “I see great value in this internal conversation as we explore ways to create a common core of understanding about the LIBERAL ARTS,” Beebe says. “What belongs to the trunk, and what branches can grow out of the trunk and the limbs? We have tremendous opportunities to include what Hugh of St. Victor called the productive arts by embedding engineering and nursing in the LIBERAL ARTS.

“Our curriculum has broadened to incorporate the newest areas of human learning as well as nursing and engineering, including the emergence of technology, data analytics, AI and machine learning (and the pending transition and displacement of humans by machines), innovation and entrepreneurship, moral and emotional intelligence, systems thinking, critical thinking and integrative thinking that leads to creative problem-solving. We believe a Westmont education will give our graduates the capacity to sustain and integrate all these known and emerging challenges as we move deeper into the 21st century.”

The Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts at Westmont, established in 2000, promotes the continued vitality of the LIBERAL ARTS tradition in American higher education. It sponsors annual conversations that gather educators from a variety of institutions nationwide to explore the LIBERAL ARTS in the context of critical issues facing society.

Christian Hoeckley, director of the Gaede Institute, believes the characteristic that best distinguishes institutions is their purpose. “LIBERAL ARTS education is concerned with developing the whole person, not simply professional preparation,” he says. “It encompasses and equips us for all dimensions of our lives, including our faith. Westmont is firmly grounded in the Christian faith and understands how this education contributes to a complete and meaningful life.

“In the Christian liberal arts, students bring their whole selves to the exploration of ideas. They see things as whole: people, systems, relationships with the natural world. They learn to bring together their intellectual, spiritual, social and civic lives.”

What distinctive elements characterize LIBERAL ARTS education? It’s broad and explores many areas of inquiry. It integrates and demonstrates the connectedness and interdependence of these areas. It’s communal or relational as students learn with others and gain insight from perspectives different than their own. And it’s foundational, developing skills and knowledge applicable in many contexts that lead to more specialized knowledge and skills.

“LIBERAL ARTS education is liberating,” Hoeckley says. “Students make their faith their own as they examine for themselves the opinions of their community. Education is about formation — what kind of people are we forming? Individuals who can think independently find it liberating. It’s liberating to love the material and learning for its own sake without considering its usefulness.

“There's also a lot of value in liberally educated professionals, though it’s typically arts and sciences majors that make the biggest impact. Those nonprofessional majors prove enormously valuable in the workplace and especially in the church. A broad background allows graduates to see things wholly, which helps them in all their endeavors throughout life.”

“A LIBERAL ARTS education provides students with highly developed, transferable skills such as critical thinking, effective communication and creative problem solving. The curriculum encourages students to develop character and become active and informed citizens. It meets a need because employers want to hire people who can think clearly, adapt in a rapidly changing environment and transfer skills and information from one situation to another that is completely different.”

In the last six years, grants from the Lilly Endowment have allowed Westmont to extend its mission to new constituents: high school students, ministry professionals and churches on California’s Central Coast. The Gaede Institute oversees these programs. “We’re bringing together the life of faith and the life of mind and extending the college’s academic resources to the faith community,” Hoeckley says. “We’re also connecting Christian LIBERAL ARTS education to the broader LIBERAL ARTS community. We can invite others to reflect with us on how various underlying frameworks inform our respective educational goals. We seek to provide a hospitable space for dialogue about the connection between issues of faith, ethics and meaning with issues of education among people from diverse backgrounds who share a common commitment to the LIBERAL ARTS tradition.”

For More:

The Story Behind the Liberal Arts at Westmont

A Chemist Considers the Liberal Arts

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

The Importance of the Humanities in Liberal Arts Education

President Beebe’s Brief History of the Liberal Arts

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. They considered the LIBERAL ARTS as a means to something else, never as knowledge simply for the sake of knowledge. Training their minds in particular subjects allowed them to address and answer the great questions of life.

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.

The Trivium, or the verbal arts, concerns how we express our knowledge of human experience.

  • »  The discipline of grammar trains the mind and hones the spirit so we can both discern and express our knowledge of human nature.

  • »  Logic establishes a regular and coherent frame for thinking.

  • » Rhetoric presents models and methods of expression and ultimately of persuasion.

The Quadrivium is built on the Trivium and includes the mathematical arts that complete the development of the human mind.

  • »  Arithmetic

  • »  Geometry

  • »  Astronomy

  • »  Music

Beginning with Clement of Alexandria (150–215), Christians articulated the LIBERAL ARTS according to a four-fold progression:

  1. Acquiring language skills.

  2. Mastering math skills.

  3. Considering the right nature of ethics, the proper role of politics and how to subjugate our unruly passions.

  4. Turning to a proper study of God after training the mind and guiding the passions.

The Productive Arts

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.