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.
Now, 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.
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?
I’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…