If There’s a Crisis of the Humanities in Christian Colleges, What Does It Tell Us about Evangelicalism?

So what’s causing the decline of humanities disciplines in evangelical colleges? And why is it significant for those institutions’ constituencies?

I think the answer to both questions may hinge on one word: fear.

CCCU signNow, I’m sure no single factor can explain why English, history, and philosophy accounted for only 5.5% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2014 by members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, down from 7.5% a decade earlier. (Nor why much larger declines are being seen at schools that used to have much larger pools of students majoring in the humanities.) As John Fea — who got me thinking about all this in the first place — suggested earlier today, there are no doubt local factors in play.

(I’d especially be interested to hear from people connected to some of the schools I mentioned at the end of yesterday’s post. While I take the point — made by several people on Facebook and Twitter — that percentage decline might primarily reflect overall growth in number of degrees awarded, that doesn’t explain why certain colleges with strong academic reputations and historically large numbers of humanities majors — relative to the CCCU average, at least — are seeing such significant declines in English, history, philosophy, et al. in both relative and absolute terms.)

Still, I think we might observe some general causes. For example, the current issue of the newsletter of the American Historical Association suggests several reasons for the national decline of the history major, based on extensive conversations with department chairs and other faculty. No factor was cited more often than this one:

The respondents most commonly invoked the economic recession that began in 2008, which reinforced a greater cultural emphasis on the expense of postsecondary education and its relative importance for future economic security.

The afternoon after I published my initial post on humanities decline, I ran into a colleague from our business department, who suggested something similar: “Students see programs like history as being more risky.”

I think there’s a lot of truth to this explanation. It’s not that you can’t get a good salary and career with a History major; in fact, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that you most likely will. But it might take a few years to work out, and it’s not as clear a path as what professional programs offer.

So I get it: If you’re an 18-year old looking to mitigate risk as you edge into an uncertain economy, you’re going to think twice about majoring in a field whose professors can’t honestly guarantee an easy college-to-career path. One of my first-year students said as much to me last week. He loves history (and even has parents telling him to major in something he loves), doesn’t love the sciences, but is leaning towards doing a pre-professional track in health care because “I just don’t know for sure what I would do with a History major.” (And this after reading several interviews we’ve done with very successful alumni whose careers aren’t past-related at all.)

If this is the primary cause of declining enrollment in the humanities, then we might expect to see a turnaround as the economy continues to improve and it becomes a bit easier to tolerate such “risk.” (Historically, this enrollment has gone up and down, so it’s not unreasonable to expect the cycle to continue.)

But that doesn’t change a deeper concern:

If it’s true that Christian college students are deciding against humanities majors because they come to our campuses averse to risk and prioritizing economic security, then the evangelical church is doing a terrible job of forming its young people.

I don’t want to suggest that recklessness is a Christian virtue. But faith and hope certainly are. And fear certainly isn’t.

If our churches are raising up a generation to crave a security defined in terms of material affluence, physical comfort, and economic stability, then the problems with evangelicalism run even deeper than I thought.

Maybe I’d feel differently if my kids were 16 instead of 6, or if we lived in a part of the country that hadn’t bounced back so well from the Great Recession, or if I hadn’t been privileged with an unbelievable level of job security and autonomy myself. But even if any of those things changed, I’m not sure how I would reconcile a prioritization of worldly security with any biblically-based, Christ-centered understanding of calling or mission, let alone faith or hope.

"Fear" in neon lights
“Fear” – Creative Commons (dryhead)

And while I’m being more provocative than usual, let me hazard another explanation for declining enrollment in humanities at Christian colleges. This one is also about fear, but of a different sort:

Could it be that Christian college students are deciding against humanities majors because they come from churches that leave them suspicious of such studies?

In other words, is this not only about material risk — but perceived spiritual risk? Not just fear of getting a job or career, but fear of losing a faith?

Noll, Scandal of the Evangelical MindI’m not sure if this is actually new. As I suggested yesterday, what we might be seeing is simply that humanities have never been all that popular at most Christian colleges — and that the anti-intellectualism that Mark Noll observed over twenty years ago has never really abated in most congregations and denominations. Or perhaps it’s flared up again…

In either case, here are the questions I’ve found myself starting to wonder this past week: (not just as a Christian college professor who teaches in the humanities, but as a parent, church member and lay leader, and Christian private school board member who is writing a book about the future of American Christianity and is personally committed to evangelicalism)

Let’s say John Fea is right (I’m pretty sure he is) that the humanities are some of the key “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.” Do evangelical churches actually want their young people to learn these things?

John claims (again, correctly) that the humanities “raise the kinds of questions that go to the heart of a Christian education.” Do evangelical churches want their youth asking these kinds of questions? Do they want the next generation to “see the world from the perspective of others,” to learn “humility as we ponder our place in the expanse of human history… to understand the common good and to serve it”? Do they want “informed citizens”?

I hope and pray that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “Yes, and amen!” That’s certainly what I hear from people like the parents who came to our department’s Senior Seminar presentations last night, from our alumni who make their faith active in many and various ways, and from the people who attend adult Sunday School classes that I teach.

If not… I hesitate to ask, but probably need to hear responses:

Why fear such questioning, such thinking? Do you then see churches encouraging young people to attend Christian colleges but discourage them from choosing courses and programs like those I teach? Do you see STEM or professional programs being presented as being less risky?

If I’m right about either fear and churches are forming their young people to minimize “risk” of a vocational/economic/material or spiritual variety, then I shouldn’t simply complain. I’d rather seek a solution.

And it probably needs to start with those of us in Christian higher ed, and especially those of us in the humanities, rethinking how we talk about what we do with the people of the church. More on that in my next post…


8 thoughts on “If There’s a Crisis of the Humanities in Christian Colleges, What Does It Tell Us about Evangelicalism?

  1. I think these are excellent questions. I’m glad to see you going this direction.

    Reading your post reminded me of something I just read in an introduction to the Old Testament I picked up last week at Bethel Seminary. I read that the Old Testament functioned at its best with young people. Why? Because the young people – who might not have experienced certain key events and miracles – might choose to be absorbed into the dominant culture. And then the faith would be at risk for a future. I wonder – too – if some of the consequences you’re observing are also related to our de-emphasis of the Old Testament in Christian formation. I could never beat my fear without the story of the Exodus, taught and and explained for me in all (or many) of its entirely radical implications. Here’s a quote: “the Torah has continued to be the primary resource for ongoing generations in the Jewish community that are characteristically displaced people at risk. Derivatively, the same claim for the Torah as primary resource is also true for Christians engaged in radical and serious obedience.” (From An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination” by Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt)

  2. A likely local factor at my alma mater (Gordon College) was the appointment of D. Michael Lindsay as president in 2011. He has promoted a vision of the college as a place for forming leaders rather than a community geared toward intellectual exploration (with the slogan “Lives Worth Leading” replacing the slogan “Freedom Within a Framework of Faith”) and he has introduced career-oriented internship requirements.

    As a humanities graduate myself, I have mixed feelings about this: sad that the traditions I learned from see declining interest among current students, but glad that they won’t be as likely to experience career uncertainty as I have been.

  3. I think that fear of the questions raised by the humanities in general steer a good number of students away from those majors. Coming to Bethel from a non-Evangelical environment, I was shocked at the sheer level of anxiety that many of my peers expressed when they were presented with alternative theological and philosophical positions. This sort of anxiety was not primarily “these people have reasons for thinking the way that they do and I’m seeing this in a more complex light” but instead “this prof/course/department is trying to lead us away from true faith.” The fear was that to continue in such a field of study would destroy one’s Christianity.

    I also noticed that most of the more fundamentalist/strict conservative students tended to self-select into non-Humanities majors like business, nursing, elementary education, etc. where they didn’t have to be confronted with the same sorts of questions. There were unofficial lists of “safe” gen eds to take that got passed around among students as well – it seemed to me that fear was a primary motivator in terms of what classes to take, what professors to take courses with, and what to major in.

  4. As a longtime humanities faculty member of one of those schools (though no longer so, but not due to any bad situation), I’d say you’ve hit the nail on the head. Parents (who most of the time foot the bill) are fearful that their students will not be able to pay back their student loans. I’ve had countless conversations with students pursuing some degree their parents think is “practical.” Some churches, not all, do not encourage characteristics developed in strong humanities programs such as entertaining opposing viewpoints, critical thinking, accepting some ambiguity. And college leaders are faced with mounting government measurement on many sides, such as graduation rates and post-graduation employment. Programs and faculty that push students to ask questions of themselves, of God, of their faith may receive negative pushback from parents and donors. Nonetheless, the humanities build characteristics many employers find essential – strong communication skills, ability to think creatively and move across disciplines, etc. The CIC has a campaign to help us all articulate the value of these skills (mostly in practical and economic terms). You can find it on Facebook at Power of Liberal Arts.

  5. I must admit that this discussion is one of the reasons I want to change the way I teach 9th grade World History next year. I want my students to love the humanities, embrace them, use them . . . and if they favor history, all the better 🙂

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