A Counterintuitive Non-Economic Argument for Majoring in the Humanities

“These days,” my local newspaper reported on Tuesday, “English majors are an increasingly rare breed on college campuses.” Whether at the University of Minnesota or nearby Augsburg University, fewer and fewer students were majoring in English — or history, philosophy, or most of the other disciplines traditionally lumped together as “the humanities.” Robert Cowgill, chair of Augsburg’s English department, admitted that “it’s a hard sell, particularly to first-generation students, that a degree that doesn’t have a direct job connected to it is going to be worth the money and time.”

But he then proceeded to make an economic argument not unlike the one I made here last week:

If you can come out of college with a degree that shows you can write, read, tell stories, the world is open for you. Corporations need people who can do this

Augsburg - Old Main
Old Main at Augsburg,, a liberal arts college that no longer has a seminary but is still affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – Creative Commons (elkman)

Indeed, I went so far as to argue that majoring in the humanities may be the best way to prepare for a career marked by constant change and short-term employment — because it equips graduates with generally applicable skills, sets them up for continuing education, and lets them “[customize] their education in such a way as to produce a dynamic, distinctive portfolio of skills, knowledge, and experiences.”

In short, I argued that it is both counterintuitive and still true that majoring in history, English, philosophy, etc. may carry less economic risk than choosing a larger professional program connected to a single career pathway.

But that’s only half the story.

Because I’m also going to argue that majoring in the humanities carries more intellectual and spiritual risk than other courses of study. And, again counterintuitively, that’s exactly what students should want in their college education — especially if they’re Christians.

Think about the language that we use at a Christian liberal arts college like Bethel: “We offer a transformative education… We’re forming whole and holy persons… We’re helping students make their faith their own.” (It sounds a bit different at a church-related college like Augsburg, but I think there are still similarities across religious liberal arts institutions.)

I believe wholeheartedly in that mission.

I also know that it carries risks that have nothing to do with debt and future earnings.

Cover of The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education

It suggests that students need not only to understand who they are, but who they’re becoming. It assumes that they can’t simply inherit or absorb beliefs from parents or others, but must decide for themselves what they believe. It rests on the audacious conviction, as I’ve argued before, that

the liberal arts are liberating arts, freeing us from [what longtime Bethel president Carl Lundquist called] “the chains of ignorance, provincialism, bigotry and narrowness” to choose to follow Christ, and to become our “unique and creative best.” (The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education, p. 229)

But many people are satisfied with who they are and don’t want to risk change, let alone transformation. Many Christians would prefer to simply restate the faith of others than to live out their own. And (metaphorically, at least) the unknowns of freedom can seem more dangerous than the knowns of slavery.

Students might find it safer to remain ignorant, provincial, bigoted, and narrow-minded, if the alternative is to ask fundamental questions that yield no easy answers, to encounter a wider world that’s not much like our own, to act with empathy and hospitality toward people we’d rather misunderstand and shun, and to humble ourselves to the point of acknowledging that we might be wrong.

Now, I think that a liberal arts education of any sort can help bring about such transformation. And those risks are present in a robust general education curriculum that exposes students to multiple disciplines and perspectives, and in any major that requires hard intellectual work that fosters the abilities to ask good questions, seek better (if not uncomplicated) answers, and to communicate well with others.

But without attempting to speak for all disciplines, I’ll say this: ten years of studying history and fifteen years of teaching it have convinced me that my discipline and the other humanities are particularly good at honing such skills — and inculcating virtues like humility, hospitality, truthfulness, open-mindedness, and empathy. If students are willing to take the intellectual risks that lurk in my classes, they’ll be better prepared not just for work, but for life.

The Bethel History Department
It’s been a while since I’ve updated the view out my office… Not that it’s much to look at

At least at one point in not-too-distant history, that’s why most Americans said they went to college. As late as the 1970s — the numerical high water mark for most humanities majors — 70% of American college students said higher education helped them “develop a meaningful philosophy of life,” while only 40% hoped it would help them “make more money.” But as historian Ben Schmidt points out in the Atlantic piece that inspired last week’s post, those ratios had flipped by the 1980s… and haven’t changed much since (apart from a blip after 9/11).

Perhaps not coincidentally, Schmidt finds that humanities majors have held steady at “historically black colleges and universities… the only institutional class where a majority of students say they’re dedicated to crafting a philosophy of life.”

Now, Christian colleges and universities like Bethel and other members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities are not classed separately in these data sets. But based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence, I’d suspect that a majority of those students would claim to value education as “crafting a philosophy of life.” Yet in a 2016 series of posts, I found that history, philosophy, and English were in serious decline in those schools, both as absolute numbers of graduates and (even more markedly) as a percentage of degrees awarded.

Perhaps CCCU students really do value making money more than figuring out life; it wouldn’t be the first time that Christians were revealed to be much like “the world” we claim to be redeeming. But I also wondered if there wasn’t something else going on: what if, I asked, that decline is “not only about material risk — but perceived spiritual risk? Not just fear of getting a job or career, but fear of losing a faith?…

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”?

Two years later I haven’t had a chance to recrunch those numbers. All I can say is that I don’t see any evidence at my own CCCU institution that the humanities have reversed their numerical decline. Nor that students are any less-risk averse than before.

But it remains frustrating to me that I probably stand a better chance of convincing Christian students that majoring in my discipline will mitigate economic risk than I do of convincing them that they should take on the intellectual and spiritual risks, and attendant rewards, that come with studying history.