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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 so 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. 

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

16 Comments

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Yes to all this Debra! I’ve just spent 2 days discussing education in my own STEM field at one of our nation’s premier R1 research universities. I argued for the need for interdisciplinary thinking in my world and I told them that I am convinced that I am a better science professor (in all parts of the university mission) because of my liberal arts background (hat-tip to my Calvin professors).

    At lunch with a roomful of undergrad ecologists, one of them asked me what was the most essential skill to acquire. I told them: communication, both written and oral.

    Take satisfaction in the work you do. Its essential.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Bless you, Tim. I’m grateful for excellent and wise professors like you–and many others, all over our university systems and in all fields.

  • Gloria J McCanna says:

    Excellent! I’ll add this essay to my resource file!

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    God bless you Deb! At 76 years old I regret not making the effort to further my formal education beyond high school. Regardless of that decision, I continue to read and discover new ideas daily. I can only imagine what a gift it would be to sit in one of your classes because of your enthusiasm for the importance of literature in today’s society and humility before God.

    Hats off to the many RJ bloggers who continually stretch my mind and heart. Keep it up. You are teaching more than you know.

  • Anita says:

    I wish I’d had the opportunity to have you as one of my professors when I was in college, Debra!

  • sharon says:

    Thanks for this essay.

    All the reasons you talk about in this essay are reasons I fought to get nursing education into colleges rather than alone in a single perspective school. Because students learn so much from each other it is important to have them learning for students in other disciplines.

    And it’s a reason I encouraged my granddaughter to switch to a literary major because it offered the courses she loves, rather than a major that will get her a job.

  • Jack Nyenhuis says:

    Thank you, Debra, for your excellent discussion of the value of a liberal education. As a classicist, I was in a field perceived as even more useless than being an English major. When I was a full time Assistant in Classical Languages at Calvin (1957-59), I received an NDEA graduate fellowship in Classics at Stanford in 1959, the first year that these fellowships were awarded. Professor Lester de Koster incredulously asked me, “What does Classics have to do with national defense?” Impertinently, I replied, “Everything!” In the 1960s, when the teaching of Latin in schools was under attack, the president of the Modern Languages Association, an English professor, delivered a powerful argument that the MLA and its members should come to the defense of Latin. He presciently predicted that if that effort succeeded, before long the modern languages would suffer a similar fate. Despite the reputed lack of interest in ancient languages and culture during my years on the faculty at Wayne State University (1962-75), our department’s enrollment grew from 150 students to over 1,000 students.

    Keep up your good work of educating each new generation of students. Our world needs educators like Neal Plantinga, Nick Wolterstorff, and you to provide the broad and wise perspective that I and so many others have received at Calvin.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Speaking of historical perspective! Thanks so much for this. Yes, when the classics major went away at Calvin, many people grieved, including students. They recognized the value of that study.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you, Debra. Ditto to what Tim Van Deelen wrote. Our three daughters are (always–never “were”) English majors, only the youngest a Calvin grad. The eldest is a pastor, the middle a lawyer, the youngest a therapist and are grateful for their liberal arts educations. But what football has to do with a liberal arts education (i.e., now at Calvin) I will never understand, since it does jumble many players’ brains with later lifelong effects.

  • June Huissen says:

    I had this very conversation the other evening with a present Calvin University Board member. My concern to him was about the music and art departments that were once flourishing on campus. My daughter graduated from Calvin in 1980 as a music major. That department had so many students involved who were not necessarily music majors but wanted the joy of music in their lives. I was at this past fall music concert at Calvin and was stunned to see Calvin Alumni as band members. Really? And then of course reality hit. Parents who spend big bucks helping their children get a quality education want them to graduate with marketable skills. That is always the answer. Thank you for laying out the situation in such a readable and comprehensible way. Good news, my grandson is going to college this fall as a history major and I must admit he also plays football!

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Great essay, Deb. Thank you. I’ve been thinking about the common criticism that so many professors are “liberal.” I don’t know how anyone can go through graduate school, even in a religious institution, and not come out with some humility about what you don’t know, and some awareness of the multiple perspectives and approaches in all fields of study. So much of the resistance to critical thinking and diversity seems to come out of ignorance and lack of exposure to any material about, say, women, or African-American experience. One of the phrases I probably say most often in the classroom: “It’s complicated.” That’s what education is about.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Hear, hear. Why be afraid of complicated, as so many people are? Maybe one purpose of a good education is to help students understand that shutting down “complicated” gets us in all kinds of trouble.

  • Marlyn Visser says:

    Your essay speaks clearly to me. I recall shortly after having graduated from high school and having enrolled in the college which is located in the corn fields; an aunt chided me, “If you want to be a dumb farmer, why spend all that time and money going to college”? I retaliated “I want to be a smart farmer”. I maintain that decision is responsible for my appreciation of literature, music, drama and art which I enjoy today. I frequently stimulate members of the board of trustees not to allow the college to become merely a vocational trade school. I remind the instructors in the ag department to not only teach the students how to make a living but also how to live. Solo Deo Gloria!

  • Aaron Antoon says:

    This is so good, Deb. This Calvin English major thanks you.

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