Higher-ed types have a deskful of crises to pick from. There’s the sexual-assault crisis, the student-debt crisis, the MOOC crisis. One of the biggest of these crises doesn’t seem to attract its share of attention, though it threatens a bigger transformation of higher education than any of the rest. And when it comes to this crisis, Christopher Noble of Asuza Pacific University suggests that only religious college might have the solution.
The crisis we’re talking about is the crisis in the humanities. As Noble notes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, fewer and fewer students are signing up as English majors, or philosophy majors, or history majors. The reasons aren’t too hard to find. These days, a college degree is an increasingly expensive document. And young people want to make sure that their work will turn into a well-paid job. That’s not a guarantee with an English degree, the way it might be with a chemistry degree or engineering degree.
But Noble offers a ray of hope. Many secular students these days are fully literate in a verbal culture, not a print culture. For such students, Noble reflects, the humanities might rightly seem “obsolete.” But this is not true of conservative religious students. Those students, Noble argues, are hard-wired to embrace the humanities. As Noble puts it,
Suppose . . . that there existed a large group of middle-class and upper-middle-class prospective customers in the educational marketplace who shared an intense prior commitment, consciously or not, to the obsolete textual worldview. That group of customers already believes, before ever setting foot in a classroom, that a ragamuffin set of ancient texts, a collection of dissonant poetic voices in unfamiliar languages, holds the key to human meaning.
Suppose further that those customers come to learn how much humanistic study will improve their facility with ancient texts. Envision consumers for whom hermeneutical skill and ancient wisdom, rather than technical expertise, constitute the nonnegotiables of a college education. Imagine a “people of the book” in the era of the book’s demise. Such is the condition of observant Muslims, Jews, and Christians in developed countries today.
Could it be true? Could conservative religious colleges provide not only a religious haven, but a haven for the humanities? If so, as Professor Mark Bauerlein of Emory University has pointed out, we’ll have to recognize the painful historical irony. Bauerlein concludes with some satisfaction that many secular humanities professors are in fact
aggressively secular, hostile to any expression of faith outside church and home. . . . If the humanities spring from a religious impulse, or at least need it to thrive, then the irreligious, irreverent postures of humanities professors are suicidal.
Certainly, following this logic, it seems that secularizing scholars might have eaten their own tails. But is that really the case? Aren’t there plenty of wholly secular reasons why some students will continue to embrace the humanities?
In my case, my interest in vigorously secular thinkers led me backwards. Because I wanted to understand Sartre, I had to read Heidegger. And because I wanted to understand Heidegger, I went back to Hegel. And Hegel didn’t make much sense until I had spent time with Kant, Descartes, and Spinoza.
In my case, at least, none of my appetite for studying the humanities came from a religious impulse. Not consciously, at least. Am I the odd duck? Or are Bauerlein and Noble simply hoping against hope for some ratification of their love for conservative religious colleges?