What Should Historians Be Thinking About?–Part 4

College classroom 3

Read the entire series and get some context for it here.

In Part 3 of this series I reflected on the meaning of college with the help of William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.  I highly recommend this book.  I plan to give it to my eighteen-year-old daughter to read as she prepares to head off to college in the Fall.

At one point in the book Deresiewicz says that religious colleges may be the only places where the virtues necessary to live a meaningful life are still being discussed, debated, and taught  (see our last post for his list of these virtues and my history-related supplement).

But as I have written in previous posts in this series, the numbers of history majors and, more broadly, humanities majors are in decline and Christian institutions are not investing in the field.  As a result, I don’t think Deresewitz is entirely correct about his praise of religious colleges.

Yes, there are examples of students and departments and administrations encouraging this kind of soul work.  Of course no administration is going to disagree with the idea that religious colleges need the humanities to sustain their missions.  But we also need to follow the money.  Where are the resources spent? Money shapes the culture and narrative of small colleges and universities.

A campus full of business majors and physical therapy majors does not necessarily mean that the humanities ethos of a small campus will be weak, but in most cases this will be the case.

Of course all of this is not new in an evangelical world that sends its children to Christian colleges.  Mark Noll has shown us that the “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” has a long history.  Sometimes I wonder if it is getting worse, not better. But I also think it is unfair to apply the anti-intellectual label to Christians only.  The scandal of the mind extends to more than just evangelicals.

There are many ways historians can respond to this crisis. In the next post, I will explore some potential responses.