Doing Something Else

Jan 9, 2016

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest things superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. King Lear 2.4.266-269

Calvin College, where I teach, faced another brutal round of budget cuts this fall, and not surprisingly, the arts took a hard hit. I lament this deeply, though I’m not complaining. I understand all the exigencies behind it, and I gratefully acknowledge that the process through which the particular cuts were determined had as much integrity and care as such a lamentable thing can have. Nevertheless, we have lost our theater major, our art history major, and—even more dire—we are losing three faculty from these departments. This is on top of several years of budget reductions and urged retirements that have cut the arts at Calvin down to the barest bones.

I don’t mean to diminish the losses other divisions and departments have suffered. To quote another Shakespeare play (Romeo & Juliet), “All are punish-ed!” I focus on the arts here because my own department, English, straddles the humanities and the arts, and we are deeply invested in the prospering of both. Unfortunately, all of us in the arts and humanities share the same problem: it’s very difficult to “reason the need” for what we do.

Do students need to study eighteenth-century British literature? Do they need to study clarinet performance, or ceramics, or acting? More to the point, how much of our shrinking higher education pie are we going to dedicate to these pursuits? Do students really need a major in these things? What does it even mean to “need” in this context?

Very quickly, we get to the big question: what is college for, anyway?

Two years ago, New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik wrote a piece titled “Why Teach English?”He addressed the supposed decline in the study of English literature in colleges and universities and attempted to put forward a better argument for such study than what we usually hear. He dismissed, in particular, two common arguments: studying English makes you a better person, and studying English (and the other humanities) makes for a more broadly humane society—plus once in a while we actually need the esoteric expertise that those ivory-tower academics fritter away their days developing.

I actually believe both of the arguments that Gopnik dismisses, but only loosely. Gopnik is right that people who study English literature—and let’s expand this to the arts and humanities more broadly—are not necessarily more wonderful people. I also admit that its possible to imagine a society rich in culture yet cruel and inhumane.

So I agree these are hardly airtight arguments. What else can we say in defense of these seemingly impractical pursuits, particularly in the context of higher education at a liberal arts college? Gopnik suggests this observation as a better reason for English literature studies: some people really love reading and talking about what they read, and there should be places where they can do that seriously and well. He writes, “The best way we’ve found to make sure that everyone who loves to talk about books has a place to do it is to have English departments around.”

That sounds somewhat frivolous out of context, but his argument arises from a concern for breaking down class privilege. Gopnik cites the example of his father, the son of a butcher and grocer, who worked his way through college and became an English professor. This man was able to cultivate his love of books because college gave him that option. So the study of books—which Gopnik more or less equates with knowledge and culture—must not be reserved only for those with wealth and leisure. “English departments,” Gopnik argues, “democratize the practice of reading. When they do, they make the books of the past available to all. It’s a simple but potent act.”

This seems to be an argument based on the diversity of human talent. That diversity is our given: some people love reading and are good at it. In response to that given, we should find ways to cultivate that talent and allow any person so blessed to use that talent for the good of the whole. This is what a healthy society does.

Of course, we could expand this argument to the study of art history, vocal performance, dance, sculpture, and the piano. Some people have talents for these things. Notably, these people can come from all strata of society. So we should have ways, ideally accessible to all, for such people to cultivate and use those talents. Colleges and universities are one possible system we have devised that can do that.

Is this a system that deserves preservation? Well, colleges and universities create space for professional practitioners as well as for the training of new practitioners who then spread the love, as it were, into the larger society. Moreover, colleges (and for this purpose, liberal arts colleges especially) create space for people to discover that they have these talents and passions. Finally, significantly, they create opportunity for people whose talents mainly lie elsewhere to experience, nevertheless, the benefits of learning something about those practices.

I like this argument, perhaps for personal reasons. I am one of those people who seems to have been born with a passion for reading and writing and talking about books. When I got to college, I felt as if I were finally, truly, coming alive. Where would I be had I not been granted the privilege of an education where I could cultivate that passion? That delightful endeavor, the literary arts, became my major, then my profession.

I like Gopnik’s argument as well because I see these same kinds of passion in my students now. Our English majors today (and music and art and theater majors) choose their path in defiance of strong pressures to the contrary. Students tell me all the time about parents or grandparents who wanted them to major in business or chemistry or something more practical and promising of a lucrative outcome. They can’t help it, however. This is what they’re good at, this is what they love.

Admittedly, an argument from diversity-of-talent threatens to turn college merely into a setting for a very expensive exercise in self-actualization. So I want to consider this in weightier terms more fitting for Christian higher education.

Calvin has a very clear and beautiful answer to the question of what college is for: “Calvin College equips students to think deeply, to act justly, and to live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” That’s our mission. We know what Calvin is for.

These students we are equipping, every one of them is made in the image of God—as we remind each other constantly—and that means that every one of them shares traits that we might deem “creative.” (I realize this is an unsatisfactorily general term. Please bear with me.) We humans imagine and wonder, we organize meaning through narrative, we invent possibilities, we make music, we engage materials to shape beauty and meaning. As one of Calvin’s latest branding blurbs claims, we are “created to create.” This is a given of the human condition. So it follows that equipping students to be agents of renewal, etc., means developing and disciplining this creative aspect of our nature along with all the others.

Moreover, here’s another given: some of our Christian students are good at the arts. It’s their passion and their God-given gift. They’re beautiful writers, they’re serious violinists, they are talented performers on stage. What are we going to do with these students? I hear the response already: “Well, we can’t be a conservatory. We don’t have the resources. We can’t be everything to everyone.” I understand. That’s the reality. I get it.

But if our mission as a Christian college is to serve the whole church and indeed the whole world by preparing young Christian people to serve the kingdom, we have to feel the weight of our responsibility to prepare Christian artists.

Even if it’s expensive. Even if the faculty-student ratios are hard to whittle down (or up, actually) to the college-wide metric. Even if students are not clamoring at the door to line up in droves for these majors. Even if the pressure to squeeze the arts out of the core feels irresistible.

By cutting arts programs down to the barest bones, we are essentially saying that serious young Christian artists have to go somewhere else. Let the secular colleges deal with you, or (horror!) other Christian colleges. We are essentially saying to them, This body hath no need of you. And we are saying to all our students: This part of your image-of-God nature is not as important as the other parts. We don’t need faculty or fellow students doing this seriously in a way that can create opportunities for you. We can get away with the most minimal resources for this part.

Is that what we want to say?

I indulge in this disquisition on Calvin’s situation because the dilemmas we face at Calvin are representative of tensions elsewhere in Christian higher education, in higher education across the board, and indeed in North American culture as a whole. As a society, we are trying to figure out (as perhaps we always are) how to organize resources for things that seem somehow instinctively important or desirable, but that we have a difficult time justifying or measuring as practical or necessary.

At one point in his article, Gopnik writes, sardonically: “We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence.”

As much as I enjoy that way of putting it, I observe that even describing literature, humanities, and the arts as “Something Else” seems to diminish the central importance, in my view, of creativity and delight—an importance rooted in our nature as bearers of God’s image and conscious lovers of God’s glory. If anything, Christian places of higher education should be more serious about the arts than any secular college or university. We have the theology to support it.

So how will we organize our resources so that all students, including but not only the artsy ones, will be equipped to appreciate and to engage in the practices of meaning-making, creativity, and delight? And to bring those capacities wherever they go? That’s the question many of us are brooding on these days.

I’m eager to clarify that all is certainly not hopeless at Calvin for the arts. Far from it. Our losses are real and painful, but great faculty remain, many people are working mightily on all kinds of good initiatives, we have beautiful facilities, and year after year the Lord sends us wonderfully talented students. Everyone, across the college, is saying all the right things about rebuilding the arts and finding a way forward. So I am hopeful.

As with anything, however, the devil is in the details (and in the money, of course). So this is simply another call to all of us to do what we can to cultivate healthy soil for the arts, wherever we find ourselves. We need places where Christians with particular talents can train seriously, where mature Christian artists can practice their art for the benefit of others, and where all of us can be encouraged to return, with joy and purpose, the gifts God has invested in our human nature.


For a couple interesting responses to the Gopnik article, see here and here.

For a nice student piece on the arts core in the Calvin Chimes, see here.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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