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Spring semester begins next week for me, and I’m looking forward to the two courses I’ll be teaching: creative nonfiction and environmental literature. I have it on good authority (i.e., previous students) that both these courses have proven meaningful for previous students, the kind of courses they continue to draw on after graduation. However, those of us who teach in humanities fields at university face the threshold of every new semester with the sinking feeling that we have dedicated our lives to something “the culture” no longer values. We’re useless, if not downright nefarious. 

Back in March, The New Yorker featured an article by Nathan Heller called “The End of the English Major.” This sort of headline does not cause me much anxiety—it’s nothing new. The poor English major has long been put forward as the indicator species of the endangered humanities ecosystem. Jeremiads over the decline of the English major go back at least to the Reagan administration. The hand-wringing is now a well-worn genre, counterpoised with two other well-worn genres: “CEOs/tech giants/entrepreneurs love to hire English majors!” and “English majors totally do make a good living—the degree definitely pays off in terms of earnings!” Everyone summons impressive statistics to support their claims.

Even so, the New Yorker article is a useful deep dive and worth reading. It outlines how, to some extent, the whole “decline” narrative is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Students and parents “hear” that humanities majors don’t get jobs, so they believe it’s necessary to major in something “practical” like STEM fields, so they major in STEM, so STEM gets higher enrollment, so money starts to flow from government, industry, and donors toward STEM programs, buildings, and professors, so STEM looks more vital and attractive, so more students gravitate toward STEM.

The article also notes that this dynamic is intensified for first-generation and international students, who often come with the pressures and expectations of a whole community behind them, pressures to “succeed” in the most tangible ways, i.e., money and prestige. And since the path to that is supposedly STEM, well then, that’s what they major in, whether they want to or not.

Meanwhile, this whole scenario becomes the basis for major policy changes at some schools, such as West Virginia University, which was recently in the news for making major cuts to—guess what—humanities fields, including jettisoning the entire world language department. Administration cited financial woes, an “existential crisis” in higher education, and the need to be “leaders” to where higher ed is heading. Critics note that WVU has recently spent some $176 million on buildings, mostly for the business school and football. 

I want to be clear that I fully support STEM fields. They’re vital, of course, and more entangled with the humanities than outsiders imagine. My colleagues in STEM at Calvin University advocate vociferously for humanities fields—they understand that a fully technocratic university experience would be deeply impoverished. That—along with their faith commitments—is why they’re at Calvin, where they likely earn less than they could elsewhere.

To some extent, these public tussles over higher education are useful and healthy: we contribute public money to higher education, and parents and students contribute increasingly burdensome amounts of their own money, so it’s appropriate that we keep asking what higher education is for. However, ignorant of the history of higher education, it’s all too easy to devolve to the narrowest of utilitarian purposes: the purpose of higher education is to churn out trained workers to serve the current needs of a technocratic economic machine.

Well, what has university been for in the past? Last semester, I taught our Core 100 course, a kind of orientation to liberal arts education at Calvin. I had my students read two articles on this purpose question, which proved somewhat bewildering and eye-opening for them. One article pointed out that since ancient times, at least four kinds of educational goals have circled one another, rising and falling in importance, always in tension: 1) undertaking learning as an end in itself, 2) shaping virtues and character, 3) providing useful career preparation (for many centuries, this meant, roughly, a career in government), and 4) creating free citizens. In the nineteenth century, the purpose of 5) expanding or discovering knowledge (i.e., research) was added to the list.

The New Yorker article reduces all this down to three ways we now typically think about the ideal university: 1) the liberal arts idyll (undergraduates reading Plato and tossing frisbees on the quad), 2) the research university, or 3) the multiversity. The latter is how I’m guessing most people think of higher education in the U.S. We want universities to do all the things, but especially career preparation in lucrative careers. Plus: sports!

As for the old learning-as-an-end-in-itself and virtue-building: those silly things feel like superfluous, elitist luxuries. Besides, everyone knows that universities indoctrinate students in the wokest possible “virtues.” Humanities fields are the worst culprits, of course. So people might briefly genuflect to “critical thinking,” but when critical thinking criticizes something we like, then we don’t want so much critical thinking.

As Penn State English professor Michael Berube said, in a lecture at Calvin in 2016,    

Everybody loves critical thinking. Nobody is against it– as long as it is contentless. But then when you start to supply it with content, you get critical thinking about gender and sexuality; critical thinking about the history of the Middle East; critical thinking about genomics and the promises of genetic engineering; critical thinking about the history of race relations in US, including Missouri, whose entire history is so deeply bound up in the politics of race, from the Missouri Compromise to the streets of Ferguson and the campus in Columbia—now critical thinking is difficult, and painful, and contentious.

Here’s the part outsiders don’t realize: STEM is hardly value-neutral, and students can learn some very “inconvenient” critical thinking in those fields, too. Meanwhile, teaching critical thinking is precisely not indoctrination. Here’s another thing outsiders don’t quite understand: students are perfectly capable of resisting the influence of the so-called indoctrination we professors supposedly spoon out to them.

I can tell you from experience that students can emerge from my classes completely un-influenced by my values. If students do, in fact, buy what we’re selling, so to speak, it’s because they were in the market to begin with. Moreover, they’re far more influenced by their peers than by us professors. If students sometimes seem nutty and extreme and shockingly contrarian or knee-jerk in their values, first of all, remember it hath ever been thus. Moreover, young adults are figuring it out, experimenting. Mileage may vary, of course, but let’s give professors credit for genuinely wanting to explore big questions with students, and students credit for not being mindless automatons.

We’re still faced with the challenge of communicating succinctly what higher education is for, though. Another moment in the New Yorker article that really hit me had to do with some statistics about declining humanities enrollments in the U.S. Heller notes:

The trend mirrors a global one; four-fifths of countries in the Organization for Economic Coöperation reported falling humanities enrollments in the past decade. But that brings little comfort to American scholars, who have begun to wonder what it might mean to graduate a college generation with less education in the human past than any that has come before.

The human past. I don’t know for sure that this college generation knows less about the human past than other generations. But I do understand how absolutely vital it is for a society to study the past with clear-eyed discernment. The maxim (from philosopher George Santayana in 1910) that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” has as much as or more urgency than ever.

I believe in—and I think I help promote in my own practice—all the purposes of higher education: virtue-building, career (not just job) preparation, creating an informed and free citizenry, discovering knowledge, exploring big and ancient and impossible questions, and celebrating the joy of learning itself, which I believe is a God-given capacity. As a professor at a Christian university, I also believe and teach that learning is an important part of the life of discipleship. Neil Plantinga writes that learning is a way to “love God with our minds” and Nicholas Wolterstorff describes Christian education as “seeing with two eyes,” one the eye of knowledge, the other of compassion. This theological purpose forms the rock-bottom foundation of everything we do at Calvin.

But if I had to boil the purpose of higher education in general down to one word, that word would be: perspective. There are many kinds of perspective and many ways of gaining it, of course, but higher education at its best imbues a significant percentage of a society’s members with vital perspective, the kind earned in significant part by studying the past in many fields. Such graduates can help the whole polis avoid being “blown about by the winds of doctrine”—doctrine being very broadly construed here. Without perspective, societies can wind up unquestioningly acquiescing to whatever dominant powers and ideologies currently have the power to dictate a society’s “needs” and orthodoxies.

To gain this broad and wise perspective, we need students studying as much history, philosophy, literature, and the arts as they can, as well as math, science, sociology, world languages, and more. Turns out that gaining perspective actually entails some pushing of boundaries, some poking and prodding. Sometimes students do a lot of shouting about things they don’t know much about—then again, that describes a great deal of our public discourse these days. The process of gaining deep perspective is difficult and full of pitfalls and takes time. I’m not saying that doing this well is simple or obvious. Thus, above all, students need to be formed as learners.

In the end, this is not about elitist arrogance but about humility. As William Cronon—another author from our Core 100 curriculum—proposes:

A liberal education is not something any of us ever achieve; it is not a state. Rather, it is a way of living in the face of our own ignorance, a way of groping toward wisdom in full recognition of our own folly, a way of educating ourselves without any illusion that our educations will ever be complete.

Trying to live in that humility, before the face of God, is what I teach my students and what I try to live. Socrates proposed that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” Yes, I tell my students, but the examined life is a pain in the neck. It’s hard work. Nevertheless, there is joy and purpose and usefulness there—and that’s what lifts me over the threshold of every semester. 

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