Entries tagged with “liberal arts”.


“If the Arts were to be consigned to oblivion, it would be sadder than if the sun were taken from the world.”

 – Philipp Melanchthon –


The best Christian thinking has always placed a high value on the Arts, and the study of philosophy, literature, logic, history, languages, and the like. Such studies open our eyes to more fully understand the human condition. They teach us to critically approach the ideologies of our time, to hold counsel with those who have gone before us, to know and appreciate beauty, to understand the evil which has followed humankind throughout its long history, to live ethically, and to do so many other various and wonderful things. In short, the Arts provide us a framework for understanding the creation and our place in it.

No wonder Martin Luther desired “that there be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible,” urging “young people to study poetry and rhetoric.” The reason is clear: “I see that by these studies, as by no other means,” he writes, “people are wonderfully fitted for grasping sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and effectively.” The Arts teach us how to think. And so we see Melanchthon is right to say the Arts’ demise would be sadder than the extinguishing of the sun; as the sun illuminates our world, so too the Arts illuminate our minds. Without them, we sit in darkness.

You can understand, therefore, that I was disgusted when I learned yesterday that the University of Regina (my alma mater) is, in its great wisdom, driving the Faculty of Arts into the ground. In particular, the English department has faced numerous cuts over the past four years, and the word is out that they should prepare for even greater cuts in the future. Professors are retiring and no funds are being alloted to replace them. Whatever “fat” there was in the department was trimmed long ago, and now the department is being forced to consider cutting core classes to fit the budget. Things look bleak.

Catch up on the story at the following links. And then, contact the UofR to let them know you disapprove of further, debilitating cuts to the Arts (especially English). I suggest sending your letter of discontent directly to President Vianne Timmons: The.President@uregina.ca.

“Is this a dagger which I see before me?”The Carillon

“Profs, students at U of R brace for possible cuts”The Leader-Post

“Talk is cheap”The Carillon

Note: Draw attention to the crisis with a Facebook-ready “cover image” of the “Realize: Reading and writing don’t matter” banner by clicking here.

Anyone who’s taken even a cursory view at the Academy recently is aware how much has changed when it comes to university. This is the era of utilitarianism, the era when students are expected to pursue “practical” degrees in accounting, engineering, and business. The days when liberal arts education was the norm, not the exception, have long since passed. [See an older post of mine entitled “Whatever happened to the liberal arts?”]

In a society that is increasingly hostile to the traditional thought-filled disciplines, Thomas H. Benton suggests a rather bold, if medieval, tactic to save the Academy as we know (knew?) it. He proposes that we bring back monastic communities. “Monasticism,” he writes, “may provide the most effective haven for higher education in the context of yet another crumbling civilization corrupted by luxuries, addicted to war, and hostile to self-examination.”

I don’t want to say too much about Benton’s article here as I’d rather you read it than my summation. I’ll only say that I think it is brilliant. So go read “Getting Medieval on Higher Education” at The Chronicle of Higher Education right now.

For those of you who haven’t heard, there’s a group on Facebook entitled “I picked a major I like, and one day I’ll probably be living in a box.” At the time of this writing, it has more than 108,000 members. I’m one of them.

In some sense, this Facebook group represents a response to the increasing utilitarianism of the academy, the increasing drive towards getting degrees that lead directly to a specific career: like engineering, medicine, etc. By contrast, we are the minority who insist on getting “useless” degrees in such things as languages, literature, history, and the like.

Of course, I would argue that a liberal arts degree is far from useless (see my post “Whatever Happened to the Liberal Arts?”). And I think many members of the above-mentioned Facebook group would agree. The very title, which predicts each of our future plans as “living in a box”, is itself a playful joke about how we do not care that our degrees do not lead directly to high paying jobs. There are far more important things than money.

That all said, the average person in North America still sees two types of degrees: “useful” (ie, leading to a high-paying job) and “useless” (all others). And so it’s unsurprising that students who take “useless” degrees frequently meet blank stares and confusion when they explain what they are studying. I thought I’d share just a few of the more humorous interchanges members recall having after being asked the question: “What’s your major?”

Student: I’m studying French.
Questioner: So you’ll be French when you graduate?

Student: I’m in Religious Studies.
Questioner: So… you want to be a nun?

Student: I’m taking Archaeology.
Questioner: Like what they did in Jurassic Park?

Student: I’m in English.
Questioner: But… you already speak English. What else could you possibly learn?

Student: I’m in Linguistics.
Questioner: Cool. How many languages do you speak?
Student: Two and a half, but we don’t actually learn languages in the program; we learn about language in general.
Questioner: So what exactly does a linguistics major do?
Student: Mostly just explain to other people what linguistics is…

And one final exchange a little more related to the typical content of my blog.:

Student: I am going into theology!
Parents: Huh?
Student: I am going into theology?
Parents: How many years of college is that?
Student: Umm, it depends on how long I go for…
Parents: [Pause] What are you going to do with that?

What indeed?


[Some of the above have been slightly edited for presentational purposes.]

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.