The Legacy of the Liberal Arts

As my first year unfolds, I continue to enjoy the opportunity to meet so many of our alumni at various gatherings and official events around the country. Thank you for the warmth and kindness you have shown to Pam and me. I have enjoyed interacting with you and sensing the joy and enthusiasm you feel for Westmont.

As we continue to think about the mission of our college, I want to reflect on what it means to be educated. One of the great touchstones of our mission statement is a commitment to the liberal arts as the centerpiece of our college curriculum. By anchoring our mission to the liberal arts, we connect with a 2,500-year history dating back to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and a whole host of other writers and thinkers.

In the ancient world, the liberal arts were meant to provide a graduated curriculum that mirrored human development. Students began with the verbal arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric. After mastering these, they turned to the mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.

The goal of the liberal arts in the ancient world was never study for knowledge itself but always as a means to something else. Being trained in particular subjects allowed individuals to utilize their intellect in addressing the great questions of life.

Beginning with Clement of Alexandria (150-215 C.E.), Christians considered the role and value of the liberal arts to be central in cultivating an understanding of and relationship to God. How do they help us learn to love God? Can they give us wisdom that leads to salvation? Can they help us answer “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” and “What is my responsibility to God, others, and my community?”

The ancient world and the early church openly debated these and other questions. Over time, Christians refined the liberal arts into a four-fold progression: first we work to acquire language skill; then we master math skills; next we consider the right nature of ethics, the proper role of politics and how to tame our unruly passions; and finally, when the mind is trained and the passions ordered, we can turn to the proper study of God.

In this understanding, the Trivium, or verbal arts, is concerned with the ordering of experience and the means of giving expression to our knowledge of human experience. In the Trivium, grammar is the discipline that trains the mind and hones the spirit so we can both discern and express our knowledge of human nature. Subsequently, dialectic or logic establishes a regular and coherent frame for thinking, while rhetoric presents models and methods of expression and ultimately of persuasion.

The Quadrivium, which follows and builds on the Trivium, expresses the mathematical arts. Here, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music complete the educational process that forms and shapes our mind and character. Music, as the highest form of our learning, integrates the senses, the mind and our capacity for lofty speculation at the most profound level possible. The point in cultivating this balance is understanding that we do not use the mind in the same way in all circumstances. In fact, Aristotle made it clear that we should never look for the same measure of precision in all things but for the level appropriate to each discipline. In this manner, the liberal arts help us learn how to use our mind properly so we can determine the measure of truth appropriate to each area of knowledge.

Recently I have been reading several articles from our first president, Wallace Emerson. What is so striking and so clear is that Dr. Emerson came to Westmont to establish a curriculum that would rival the greatest liberal arts institutions on the East Coast while maintaining a commitment to Christ being preeminent in all things. As we look to the future, we continue to build a great college based on these core convictions.

I am more convinced than ever that an educated student is one who has enjoyed the wonderful benefits of a liberal arts education and can understand both the great questions of life as well as how to find answers to those questions. I also believe our liberal arts curriculum continues to provide the best training for our mind and can guide us regardless of the discipline we embrace or the career path we choose following college. Meeting Westmont alumni and hearing their stories simply confirms this conviction. These remarkable people live out their learning and their faith in so many different ways, and they continue to inspire me.

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