When you talk to humanities professors, especially those at elite institutions, it doesn’t take long for the complaints to begin. They say that the administration doesn’t support them, choosing to invest in the sciences and business school, not language, literature, and culture. They witness the number of majors plummetEnglish used to collect nearly 8 percent of majors; now it’s close to 3 percentand they feel unappreciated. (At my own institution, the number of majors has dropped by more than 50 percent since I arrived in 1989.) The overall drift toward the “corporate university” reflects values they abhor, and many of them would like to move, but the job market is terrible.
It all adds up to a disciplinary malaise. But there are bright spots amid the decline and fall. An essay last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education highlights one of them: small religious colleges, where the humanities remain central to the mission. According to Christopher Noble, professor at Azusa Pacific University, students there and at similar institutions study Great Books, ponder big questions of the Good and of God, and hone their skills as “people of the book.”
Noble proceeds to argue that only religious youths can really care about and prosper in those humanities-intense curricula, and that atheist and secularists students should probably go elsewhere. Religious students honor the past, revere tradition, and heed the printed word, each element crucial to the health of the humanities. Secular students, on the other hand, live in the present and frequent Twitter, he says. We may argue over that assertion, but still accept the point that students, teachers, and administrators at religious institutions respect the humanities much more than those at elite colleges and research universities do.
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. If you were to mention in a committee meeting the evidence of scripture as a guide to policy, everyone would stare at you as if you were a disguised alien dropped in from a hovering spacecraft. A forthright Christian among them is sometimes tolerated and sometimes despised.
If the humanities spring from a religious impulse, or at least need it to thrive, then the irreligious, irreverent postures of humanities professors are suicidal. When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, the momentum was all toward decrying universal truths, transcendent meanings, and Dead White Males. My superiors believed that they could substitute identity matters and critical thinking for Beauty and Tradition, and they did. What do they think now, though, when they see the fruits of their labor yield so little and the slipping enterprise they have overseen thriving at the antithesis of their vision?