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It is cliche at this point to observe that humanistic learning is declining in American colleges and universities, including Christian ones. There are new data points each year, but the conclusion is always the same: faculty positions supporting particular arts and sciences majors, such as classics, history, philosophy, etc., are being reduced.  It is easy for those who care about this kind of learning to lose hope. How can the humanities survive the push toward technical degrees or withstand the demolition of a coherent body of knowledge from multiculturalism? It seems like a lost cause. Efforts to justify the humanities on intrinsic or utilitarian grounds are worth making and should be repeated, but they seem to have no effect or fall on deaf ears. The forces at work going in the other direction seem to be unstoppable.  

Why does this matter? I’d like to argue that the loss of the humanities diminishes our knowledge of human persons and even God.  

First, without the humanities, we learn less of what it truly means to be human. Therefore, we also learn less of what it means to be created in the image of God. A comparison of  my own discipline of political science to humanistic disciplines will suffice. Let’s say we want to know about race relations in urban America. Most political scientists would seek that knowledge through empirical methods modeled largely on the natural science fields. These methods are sophisticated, precise, rigorous, and require years of training to master. The answers that flow from these methods usually take the form of generalizations about (in this example) disparities between white and African-American communities across the country in the areas of education, police brutality, and so forth. And to be sure, these conclusions can be very useful for the advancement of social scientific knowledge and even public policy formation. 

By contrast, a humanistic approach to the topic of race relations in urban America would likely lead us to understand not what generalizations we can make from the outside about these communities but instead what kinds of narratives exist of people who actually live in those communities. This is what the humanities do at their best. They attempt to see human life from within and not from without. In this case, we might watch and study Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, where we actually feel the (admittedly fictionalized) anger, heat, and tension between African-American, Italian-American, and police communities in 1980’s Brooklyn. Instead of learning about gentrification, we experience a depiction of it. Instead of learning about police brutality, we witness it depicted. And while artistic depictions can distort reality and deceive audiences, at their best they illumine the human condition in a way social scientists cannot.  

The more universities and colleges abandon this second approach, the more we lose the ability to see human life the way we all experience it: as image bearers of God, in community with others, with narratives and histories that defy the disembodied calculations of the social scientist or data analyst. Therefore, for every diminishment of the humanities, we lose a piece of what it means to be human. 

However, far more serious than the loss of the human being is that, if we diminish the humanities, we will lose some of our knowledge of God. This is more difficult to see and more controversial to argue. Probably the most oft-quoted passage from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is the following: “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.” In other words, because we are created in God’s image, we know ourselves better when we know God, and we know God better when we know ourselves.  

In God’s great kindness to humanity, he revealed himself in both special and general forms. In historic terms, that special revelation is found primarily in the Scriptures and in the Son Jesus Christ. In general revelation, he reveals himself in his creation and most especially in human beings. And if, as I argue above, acquiring knowledge of human beings happens best when done from a humanistic point of view—that is, from a human point of view, from the inside—the less we engage in this kind of study, the less we will know of God.  

To take the example of Do the Right Thing, we don’t learn simply that God is just in the character of Mookie (a flawed character, no doubt); we also learn what it’s like for God to be just, what it might feel like for God to stand up for what is right in the face of injustice (in this case, police brutality). This kind of knowledge is personal in that it transcends a cold, objective knowledge; it is more like the Hebrew word “yada,” which goes beyond a mere apprehension of something or someone, more like a lover’s knowledge of her beloved. This is the kind of knowledge God wants of us and that we should want of Him, and it is the kind of knowledge into which the humanities invites us. 

It is uncontroversial to say that God’s revelation is sufficient for our salvation but is not exhaustive in its revelation of the divine nature. Given God’s infinite complexity and creativity, it only makes sense that it will take all of eternity to comprehend the nature of God. And yet, when we in the here and now get to read the great diversity of literature and history and philosophy, when we get to make friends with brand new people, and when we attempt to experience the human condition from within someone’s narrative (as difficult as that can be) —when we do all these things, we get to know a little bit more of who God is and what he is like.  

While this final reflection is more speculative, its plausibility should push colleges and universities (especially Christian ones) to think twice about a headlong pursuit of the technical disciplines. Administrators surely do not have the time or luxury to consider these lofty thoughts while enrollments decline, labor markets change, and budgets tighten. Moreover, the Church of Jesus Christ does not ultimately rely on the health or existence of Christian colleges and universities. And conversely, if Alan Jacobs is right that the humanities may be dying in universities but not necessarily in the culture writ large, then maybe this is all a moot point (Jacobs, Trinity Forum conversation, July 10, 2020). But if the knowledge of the human person and even the knowledge of God are on the line, it’s worth asking what it is these institutions are preserving if this knowledge is lost.  

Andrew Kaufmann

Associate Professor of Politics and Government, Bryan College Dr. Kaufmann has a special interest in Christian political thought and how Christians should engage the public square. His academic background is in the history of political theory, and his expertise is in contemporary political theory, specifically the political and religious thought of French philosopher Jacques Derrida. More recently, Dr. Kaufmann has developed an interest in the importance of citizenship and civic education, especially in the American tradition. Sharing the sense of crisis that many Americans feel about American democracy, he believes that this may be an opportune moment to educate Americans not just on the issues of the day but on the roots of those issues found in the past.


  • David Ward says:

    Thanks so much Andrew. Thoughtful essay, points well-made. Yes, it is cliché to point out that humanistic learning is on the decline. There have been a number of posts on this blog lamenting this. It’s therapeutic for us to lament this–the culture doesn’t care. At least we resonate with one another on this issue.

    I believe that this comment hits the nail on the head: “… think twice about a headlong pursuit of the technical disciplines. Administrators surely do not have the time or luxury to consider these lofty thoughts while enrollments decline, labor markets change, and budgets tighten.”

    We all know very bright, hard-working, adaptable graduates who are spray washing houses or stocking shelves to have work and simply pay their student loans. They have degrees and training that are not valued by the greater culture. The culture worships money and efficiency (and it worships efficiency only because it produces more money). We live in a sinful, materialistic culture and I see no sign of that changing soon. This saddens me.

    So the technical discipline coupled with some summer internships makes for a more marketable student in a culture that simply must make more stuff and continually grow on our finite planet.

    Your point about watching a film so that students can feel the pain, etc of others is also excellent.

    There’s so much more to say, but I will close. I appreciate your thoughtful post. Thanks again!

  • William Tate says:

    This is very well said.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful contribution. While I am not in academia, I appreciate the call for humanities. Too often, students that enter my part of the workforce (federal government) lack exposure to the mix of humanities and applied science that would make them effective. They lack foundational wisdom. I hope that your colleagues consider the desperate need we have for people who can appreciate the whole complexity of human creation, failure, and recreation.

  • Mark Belz says:

    Andrew, this is both insightful and very well written. I would think the reason for higher education’s abandonment of the humanities is largely market driven. When I served on the board of Covenant College many years ago, the philosophy department was actually closed down for a time, and we were told that there simply weren’t enough students that wanted to major in it.

    A liberal arts college is one in name only without a healthy dose of English, history, philosophy and more. It would seem that the problem is students’ lack of interest in these areas, so it follows that liberal arts colleges need to help them develop a healthy appreciation for the humanities–perhaps a freshman bridge course, required for a diploma, that would help them see that such study is indispensable to their education, no matter what their major. And perhaps it would be a good idea to require such a course for faculty members as well.

    Thank you for a great piece.

  • Joe McQueen says:

    So good, Andrew. Thank you for this crucial reminder:

    “The more universities and colleges abandon this second approach, the more we lose the ability to see human life the way we all experience it: as image bearers of God, in community with others, with narratives and histories that defy the disembodied calculations of the social scientist or data analyst.”

    So well put.