Are the Humanities in Crisis at Christian Colleges?

Last week I was part of a discussion at Bethel about what defines “the humanities.” I bit my tongue, but I was tempted to say, “A perpetual sense of crisis.”

And perhaps “crisis of the humanities” talk has been overblown. I wrote a whole post about this nearly three years ago, noting historian Ben Schmidt’s finding that (aside from a huge jump in enrollment in fields like literature, philosophy, and history in the 1960s and a much smaller one in the Nineties) the humanities are basically where they’ve been most of the last sixty years: “…while the 60s boom still stands out, we give out far more population-normalized degrees in the humanities now than we did in the 1950s or the 1980s.”

John FeaBut my friend John Fea, who teaches at Messiah College, raised the concern again over the weekend, suggesting a particular reason to worry about the humanities at Christian colleges like Messiah and Bethel.

It came via John’s explanation for the popularity of Donald Trump among evangelicals, in an op-ed for Religion News Service:

Conservative Protestants have a long way to go if they want to rid themselves of the anti-intellectual populism that [Mark] Noll lamented almost a quarter century ago. Evangelical churches and colleges have failed to educate people how to think Christianly about their role as citizens. They have failed to teach their constituencies Christian habits of acting in the world that allow them to make meaningful contributions to American democracy. Is it any wonder that so many evangelicals have casted votes for Donald Trump?

John suggests a couple of reasons for this, but I’ll focus on this hypothesis: that rising Christian college enrollment in professional programs at the expense of the humanities is contributing to the revival of “anti-intellectual populism” among evangelicals. It’s worth quoting John at length at this point:

Enrollments in humanities fields — history, philosophy, literature, theology — at evangelical colleges have experienced a precipitous decline over the last decade. Yet these are disciplines that teach evangelical young people how to live together with their deepest differences, reflect on the purpose of life, think critically about the world, cultivate moral courage, make evidence-based arguments, and recognize that life does not always fit easily into binary categories.

These are the subjects that raise the kinds of question that go to the heart of a Christian education. They help us see the world from the perspective of others and teach us humility as we ponder our place in the expanse of human history. They help us to understand the common good and to serve it. They make us informed citizens.

Unfortunately, today we are training evangelicals for our capitalist economy. We are not training them for life in our democracy.

I’m glad that John has raised these issues so publicly, but they’re also big enough that I’m going to come back to them in another post or two. Today I’m just curious in his starting point:

Have enrollments in humanities fields declined precipitously at evangelical colleges over the past decade?

I don’t know of anything like a CCCU-wide study that would answer this question, though I’d be happy to be told of one. (Three years ago I did look at the state of the discipline of philosophy in Christian colleges…) But I can start by looking at my own institution, since Bethel has recently released data on enrollment by major over time.

Enrollment by major (as percentage of total enrollment) at Bethel University, 2009-2015
As a percentage of total enrollment (note: includes double-majors, so, for example, students majoring in History and Social Studies Education 5-12 are represented in both the Humanities and Education lines)

It’s not an ideal test of John’s claim, even for Bethel. “Humanities” here includes History, Philosophy, and English Literature majors, but there’s no separate Theology major — it’s lumped with Biblical Studies. And I’m not sure what the pattern would look like if we went back to 2006. (Though I’d note that we had enough students in our History capstone course that year that we successfully lobbied the administration to let us break it up into fall and spring sections. It’s since gone back to spring-only…)

But since 2010 “humanities” at Bethel have declined from nearly 10% of enrollment to just over 5% of enrollment. There has been some growth in professional programs (Business from under 16% to nearing 20% in a couple of years; Nursing from 13% to 15%), but the real change at Bethel has been found in two other programs: Physics (including a 3-2 engineering track) now accounts for nearly 7% of our enrollment (up from under 4% in 2009), and a new Biokinetics major (5.44%) now is almost the same size as the four humanities fields put together.

I’d love to see data that goes back to the late 20th century. Nationwide, there was a boomlet in the humanities in the 1990s… Did the same thing happen at Christian colleges, perhaps as they wrestled with the implications of Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (published 1994)?

If you work at a Christian college, have you seen similar patterns over the last 5-10 years? What’s your sense of how this graph would look if we went back to the 1990s?

Now, I’ve previously argued that we shouldn’t judge the heath of the humanities solely by number of majors. In another June 2013 post, I quoted Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association: “…as humanists our greatest potential influence on students is probably when we teach those who are major [sic] outside our departments. We need to stop thinking about such course [sic] as part of something called ‘general education,’ and instead think of it as our opportunity to impart humanities learning to large numbers of students.”

Here again, I don’t have a wider data set, but I can talk about the role of the humanities within the general education curriculum at Bethel.

Global Perspectives pillar in the general education curriculum of Bethel University

On one hand… As of this year, every Bethel undergraduate is required to complete (at Bethel, not via transfer) either GES130 Christianity and Western Culture or at least the first three of a four-course sequence in Western Humanity in Christianity Perspective. These courses are focused on teaching our students “how to think Christianly about their role as citizens” and “Christian habits of acting in the world,” and they’re taught almost entirely by faculty from the humanities. (The only exception is that we’ve had a few terrific professors from the social sciences teach in CWC, but the History and Philosophy departments supply the leadership and most of the teachers for the course. Western Humanities is dominated by English and philosophy professors.)

In addition, the Philosophy and English departments play a major role in a first-year category called Nature of Persons, and THE201 Christian Theology is a required course in the curriculum (along with 100- and 300-level Bible courses).

And even past those first-year experiences, we have several chances “to impart humanities learning” to Bethel students of any major. This year, for example, nearly 70% of the total enrollment in Contemporary Western Life & Thought courses (a 200-level category focused on American history, politics, society, and culture in the 19th and 20th centuries) has been taught by historians, philosophers, theologians, or literature scholars, with the rest covered by professors in humanities-friendly fields like political science, economics, environmental studies, rhetorical studies, and theatre. Humanists also teach in categories devoted to non-Western cultures, comparative systems analysis, and even science, technology, and society.

But because of transfer credits, it’s increasingly possible for students to evade the humanities in gen ed at Bethel. If they come here with at least 26 credits, for example, they can opt out of Christian Theology. With eighteen more they can skip both the World Cultures and Contemporary Western Life & Thought categories. Or they can meet the latter through AP U.S. History, which might not actually “teach evangelical young people how to live together with their deepest differences, reflect on the purpose of life, think critically about the world, cultivate moral courage, make evidence-based arguments, and recognize that life does not always fit easily into binary categories.”

Besides CWC/Humanities, the only other gen ed requirement that absolutely has to be completed at Bethel is a capstone category called Contemporary Christian Issues. Seeking to provide students “a sharpened sense of some of the complex issues present in our contemporary society” and “to facilitate ethical decision-making when faced with these issues,” the category fits well with John’s aspirations for the relationship between Christian higher ed and democratic citizenship. But this year professors from John’s four humanities disciplines accounted for less than 30% of the enrollment in that category.

Here too, I’d be curious to know what role humanities plays in your institution’s general education curriculum, and whether you’ve seen any shifts that may confirm or contradict John’s hypothesis.

Of course, these aren’t the only potential measures of a humanities decline at Christian colleges. We might also consider more existential problems, like growing restrictions on academic freedom. (Just today Inside Higher Ed reported on the sudden dismissal of a highly popular history and religion professor at William Carey University, a Southern Baptist school in Mississippi.) But numbers of majors and enrollment in gen ed are good places to start.

As I continue on (maybe later this week, maybe next — I do have humanities courses to teach, too), I want to think through John’s arguments about the connections between studying the humanities and preparation for Christian citizenship.

7 thoughts on “Are the Humanities in Crisis at Christian Colleges?

  1. Hi Chris – I apologize like a good pietist would and acknowledge I’m not in your direct audience (of faculty at Christian colleges/universities).

    As a general reader/observer, I’d like to ask, however, about the “bifurcation” of the humanities and sciences/professional tracks. Is this the “whole and holy” we talk about?

    I’ll grant…as a student at Bethel about 15 years ago…I was in philosophy, theology and all that good stuff. As a student janitor in the late evenings, however, I suddenly was forced to transverse this odd reality for the purpose of collecting trash. Going into the chemistry lab was like entering another world…a strange underworld at Bethel, or so it appeared to me. “What goes on here?” I wondered to myself. I simply couldn’t bridge in my imagination the reality that fellow students actually learned in this radically different setting from my philosophy classes just one or two floors up. “Do they talk about anything interesting besides facts?” I wondered.

    Fast forward. I’ve since studied linguistics and translation theory, along the lines of traditional humanities. But now I’m in a hard science-related field: turf management.

    Studying grasses and plants is suddenly super exciting to me. And I can easily draw all kinds of “humanities” approaches into this new field, no pun intended.

    Surely, I would hope, this possibility is not remote at the university…?

    This is also why I’m very interested in why Pietists seem to have a love affair with botany… A “hybrid” of humanities/science? I see this as a “whole and holy” connection.

    1. Johanna – It’s a distinction we’ve inherited from higher ed more broadly… And it’s of course liable to being taken too far. But “whole and holy” does not negate the fact that we do things differently in “the humanities” than our colleagues do in the sciences and in the various professional programs. (Nor that students seem, if John is right, increasingly to misunderstand and undervalue what humanists have to offer.) Of course, this is also why I’m glad that history, philosophy, literature, and theology students here need to take science and math courses, and why I wish more of them would consider adding a business course or two, or seeking internships in that sector of the economy.

  2. As a math professor who teaches a university-wide capstone course at a Christian college, I want to push back a bit on your measuring the proportion taught by humanities professors. Our course pushes students to reflect on the way their faith convictions should drive their ideas of engagement in public issues. In particular they do an in depth case study in immigration.
    The course was developed and is driven largely by a core of humanities faculty but utilizes diverse instructors such as myself.
    Now I am a product of a liberal arts school (Bethel ’93) and have invested significant energy in learning philosophy of science for my majors, so I’m not just a STEM guy. The point is, a non-humanities professor may still be training students in some of these skills.
    My two cents.

    1. I think that’s certainly fair. I was really just trying to test John’s claim about the numerical decline of the humanities at Christian colleges — not (yet) to take on his larger argument that such a decline (if it has happened) has had dire consequences for students.

  3. One factor, often missing in such analysis, is the proliferation of adult degree completion programs at Christian colleges. Typically, students in such programs transfer credits from other programs and receive some sort of leadership or business degree. These programs grew at rates much higher than traditional programs in the liberal arts and financially supported them. Sometimes they get left out or are segmented from the overall institutional statitics. I have not read it, but Pamela Giles dissertation may provide additional data and analysis that could prove helpful along these lines: “The Impact of Adult Degree-Completion Programs on the Organizational Climate of Christian Colleges and Universities” . Even if programs in the humanities remained stable, they would have decreased in terms of the overall percentage during this period of growth in adult degree completion programs. I once inquired about this trend to a Bethel administrator (over 15 years ago). His reply was that sometimes a cash cow can be viewed as a noble beast.

    1. Thanks for thinking to share this, Doug. Even as I wrote the original post, it occurred to me (not that I acted on it) that I should probably clarify that I was using CAS (College of Arts and Sciences) statistics, not those for CAPS (Bethel’s College of Adult and Professional Studies). Adding in those programs (which has some general education, but is ultimately focused on professional training for fields like business and nursing) would certainly change the percentages I originally offered.

  4. see also: “Do Adaptive Initiatives Erode Christian Colleges’ Strong Mission Orientation?” (pdf file)

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