Fri 25 Sep 2009
As my degrees are in in Humanities (English) and the Social Sciences (Linguistics), I frequently find myself wondering what exactly has happened to the Academy. Decades ago, Liberal Arts was recognized as the norm for higher education. But as time has moved on, universities have moved in a decidedly utilitarian direction. Students are ushered into programs that focus on practical education – degrees that have “obvious” worth to a particular field of employment. If we consider the U.S.A., for example, more than 20 percent of all students today take degrees in Business – an increase of almost 10 percent over the past thirty years. By contrast, students of English have dropped from 7.6 percent to 3.9. History majors have likewise declined from 18.5 percent to 10.7 percent.
People today no longer seem to value a Liberal Arts education. Instead, the focus has shifted towards degrees that will directly lead to high paying positions. I could not begin to count the amount of times Engineering students have told me “money” was the primary reason they were taking their degree. Gone, it seems, is any desire to learn how to think critically – one of the greatest benefits of a liberal arts education. Rather than developing leaders capable of engaging and critiquing society, we seem to be content in churning out one-dimensional, one-task-minded workers.
William Chace has written a fascinating new article entitled “The Decline of the English Department” where he examines some of the causes and potential solutions to the decline of liberal arts programs, with particular emphasis on English. In describing the value of his own English undergraduate degree (received in the 1950s), he writes, “What we read forced us to think about the words on the page, their meaning, their ethical and psychological implications, and what we could contrive (in 500-word essays each week) to write about them… Studying English taught us how to write and think better, and to make articulate many of the inchoate impulses and confusions of our post-adolescent minds. We began to see, as we had not before, how such books could shape and refine our thinking. We began to understand why generations of people coming before us had kept them in libraries and bookstores and in classes such as ours. There was, we got to know, a tradition, a historical culture, that had been assembled around these books. Shakespeare had indeed made a difference – to people before us, now to us, and forever to the language of English-speaking people.” The degree was, at its core, truly about thinking critically, and applying that critical thought to our understanding of the culture around us.
In my opinion, one of the largest problems hindering Gospel outreach today is a general disdain for thinking about deep philosophical issues. The issue is not that most people are necessarily against Christianity, or even religion in general. Instead, there is a deep-rooted apathy towards all things philosophical and complex. We as Christians should be the most vocal supporters of liberal arts education because it trains people to think (at least theoretically speaking). And when people have that thinking background, our missionary duty as Christians becomes significantly simplified: demonstrate the intellectual integrity of Christianity and trust God to do the rest.