Are the humanities in crisis at Christian colleges?

May 10, 2016 by

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Last week I was part of a discussion at Bethel University 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 ’90s) the humanities are basically where they’ve been most of the past 60 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.”

But 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 Fea’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?

Fea 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 Fea 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 Fea 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.

Enrollment1

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) — Bethel University

It’s not an ideal test of Fea’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 percent of enrollment to just over 5 percent of enrollment. There has been some growth in professional programs (Business from under 16 percent to nearing 20 percent in a couple of years; Nursing from 13 percent to 15 percent), 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 percent of our enrollment (up from under 4 percent in 2009), and a new Biokinetics major (5.44 percent) 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 past 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.

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 percent 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 theater. 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 18 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 Fea’s aspirations for the relationship between Christian higher ed and democratic citizenship. But this year professors from Fea’s four humanities disciplines accounted for less than 30 percent 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 Fea’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 recently 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 Fea’s arguments about the connections between studying the humanities and preparation for Christian citizenship.

Chris Gehrz is a professor of history and chair of the department of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. He lives with his wife and two children in Roseville, and attends Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton. This first appeared on his blog, The Pietist Schoolman.


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