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A Rally Cry for the Humanities (But Only If You Are Christian)?

I recently read Christopher Noble’s article “Sanctuary for the Humanities,” in the Chronicle Review on the place of the humanities in religious colleges and universities.  Noble’s argument is that the humanities, in the face of the portents of their impending doom will survive, but most likely in religious colleges that no one has ever heard of.  Noble weighs in on the ongoing discussion of the role of the humanities, if it should have one at all in higher education, and collapses it with the discussion religious colleges’ place and accreditation (see Peter Conn’s article).

Noble is mostly addressing William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life and his questions:

Will religious colleges play an important role in revitalizing the humanities? Is it plausible that Dante’s Inferno could be taught by religious faculty in the middle of the Sierra Nevada woods with anything approaching the effectiveness of scholars in a Harvard lecture hall?

Noble works at the High Sierra Program of Azusa Pacific University, a private Christian institution.  He is definitely one defending his position in the world and provides a wonderful account of how the humanities are not in decline in his institution and others like it, but flourishing.  He even goes so far as to say his students can give those in the Ivy League a run for their money (with some qualifying statements about test scores).  He has a good point. The small religiously affiliated schools often have a theological framework up which to hang their humanities and general education core.   Mark Bauerlein supports Noble’s position at the First Things blog, that humanities professors at secular university have only themselves to blame for the declining interest in the humanities.  According to Bauerlein:

If there is a connection between religious observance and humanities curriculum, then humanities professors who bemoan their lot have to face an irony in their plight. For, they are aggressively secular, hostile to any expression of faith outside church and home.

And in the climate where we are actually concerned about student debt, Noble asserts that

My analysis may appear crass and cynical, but it is nothing of the kind. As a Christian intellectual, I believe that the humanities training I give my students is worth $30,000 of debt—as long as my students also hail from (and are hailed by) a religious tradition of some kind. For Christian students, such debt is merely a temporal down payment on an eternal project of soul-craft.

Noble is correct – Christian students do find a humanities sanctuary in Christian schools.  However, there are students who find a humanities-enriched education in religiously affiliated schools who are not Christian (the students not the schools).  Or they may be nominally something.  They are a part of the growing number of “nones” in America.  And here is where I start to pull away from Noble’s perspective about Christian schools and the humanities.  On the spectrum of higher education – from 100% secular to 100% committed persons of faith – what about the middle ground where one might have a population of faithful Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as well as students of no particular faith?  There are lots of schools that are affiliated with a particular religious faith, but have a diverse and largely not faithful population.  Beth McMurtrie talks about this in her recent Chronicle article “Catholic Colleges Greet an Unchurched Generation.”  Noble is correct that intentionally Christian schools do inspire young people who are searching for a way to merge their intellectual and faith lives together to attend their institutions.  Some church-related colleges also attract students who are simply searching.  Or students who don’t know they need to search but quickly find out they might.  Or they got good scholarship money.  Or it was close to (or far from) home.

What is it that students want when they choose a private, faith-based institution even if the mission statement and Christian affiliation is buried on a subpage and prospective students are wooed by flashing images of athletic buildings, attractive residential housing, and smiling faces of currently enrolled students with nary a book at hand?    Somewhere between Noble’s intentionally Christian school and the secular college or university, I find McMurtrie’s account of Catholic colleges appealing and hopeful.  (This might be what gives me the most pause with these two polar opposites – the lack of hope for the humanities.)  McMurtrie highlights a handful of mostly Jesuit Catholic schools who have found a way to “[connect] their religious mission to topics of broad interest, like developing a meaningful philosophy of life or pursuing social justice.”  While McMurtrie is not discussing the fate the humanities specifically, she does describe places where students are encountering a liberal arts education which include the humanities and that inclusion results in positive experiences for students.  McMurtrie largely looks at Marquette University’s efforts to “try to meet the needs of the unchurched generation while still fulfilling their historic mission.”  Faculty and students who cover the spectrum of faith (or no faith) have found a space to explore what I can only describe as “the big questions” about meaning and purpose all within the context of specific disciplines.  The seemingly diverse theological background of those who occupy this in-between space of exploration stands out in contrast to those at either ends of the spectrum of religious affiliation (the all-or-nothing spaces).

Returning to Noble who asks: “Will religious colleges play an important role in revitalizing the humanities?”  I must agree that this may prove to be the case.  Yet, and here I start to sound naive at worst, nostalgic at best, I hope this is not the case. I hope that the humanities continue to do more than survive in sanctuaries.

Post by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

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