Only Religious Colleges Can Still Do It

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?

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  1. I don’t know… in my experience the majority of conservative Christians aren’t really overly interested in intense study of scripture… at least not in the US traditions. The very American school of thought that scripture is “plain and obvious to all people in all times” (something that, as I understand it, is quite a recent interpretation of the Bible) seems to greatly undermine the premise of this person’s claims. While there will certainly be Christians interested in scholastic research in ancient texts, I think it’s a stretch to say this would be any appreciable difference from secular interest in scholastic research of texts. I feel like this is really grasping.

  2. It sounds good on paper. The religious students are grounded in reading, so better prepared for the humanities.

    In my experience, however, many non-religious students have actually read their Bible more thoroughly than the religious students.

  3. As a student of philosophy, I hope you’ll respect the danger of a divided middle. Then again, if Noble and the like are really meant to be the humanities’ salvation, I’d hope for the same from them. 🙂 It’s not a choice between religious colleges being the humanities’ salvation or Noble having a personal bias.

    To my mind, the real problem isn’t from students. In my experience (former philosophy ABD so I taught intro phil courses for many years) it’s not that students suddenly aren’t interested in the humanities. There are less majors as a % of all students but that’s mainly because you have people that fifty years ago never would have gone to college, now doing bachelors degrees for technical or business careers. The bigger problem? Parents not wanting to pay for it, and local governments not wanting to subsidize it. Of course, as I was only teaching for five years I obviously can’t provide historical context beyond the secondhand and the scholarly.

    But if I’m right, there is a synchronicity between religious schools and humanities profs: both think education is about more than what’s useful toward finding a career. Basically, they’re trying to shuck a kind of utilitarianism, though they’re often reaching for different alternatives. But in the interests of fairness, they’re hardly alone: the Occupy/various social justice movements would fall in this category as well. Also disgruntled yuppies who found money didn’t buy happiness – there’s a lot around these days.

    The problem is that a lot of religious conservatives have their own utilitarian goals in mind: not making money but preserving good Christian souls. Some religious folk are committed to working out what’s ultimately valuable, what it means to be good or live a good kind of life, and they’re natural humanitists IMO. And some conservative Christians, particularly the home-schooled, doubly particularly (in my experience) girls who spent their high school years reading Jane Austen on top of Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien because it was safe and wholesome, probably have more experience working with the written word even outside the Bible than a lot of students do.

    Personally? I think the real lesson here isn’t that religious schools will save the humanities, so much that the humanities has some natural allies in religious circles. The secular/religious distinction isn’t half as helpful as asking how you pursue God or whatever ultimate source of meaning (if any) you’re interested in studying. A lot of Christians are more developed and driven in that area than a lot of non-religious students, but it’s not an exclusive thing – nor is every religious kid going to make a great philosophy student. But maybe framing the issue in terms of something other than non/belief would be a useful starting point, because I think the humanities are hurting themselves when they look down at anyone talking in terms of God as unintelligent and not worth dialoguing with.


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