Fear Not: Evangelical Churches and the Humanities

West Shore

Chris Gehrz has struck again.  Earlier today we called your attention to his post on the declining number of humanities students at Christian colleges.

This afternoon Chris is back with some suggestions about why the humanities are in decline at Christian colleges.  His answer can be boiled down to one word: “fear.”

Chris makes two important suggestions::

  1. “If it’s true that Christian college students are deciding against humanities majors because they come to our campuses averse to risk and prioritizing economic security, then the evangelical church is doing a terrible job of forming its young people.”

  2. “Could it be that Christian college students are deciding against humanities majors because they come from churches that leave them suspicious of such studies?”

On the first point, Chris writes:

So I get it: If you’re an 18-year old looking to mitigate risk as you edge into an uncertain economy, you’re going to think twice about majoring in a field whose professors can’t honestly guarantee an easy college-to-career path. One of my first-year students said as much to me last week. He loves history (and even has parents telling him to major in something he loves), doesn’t love the sciences, but is leaning towards doing a pre-professional track in health care because “I just don’t know for sure what I would do with a History major.” (And this after reading several interviews we’ve done with very successful alumni whose careers aren’t past-related at all.)

And this:

I don’t want to suggest that recklessness is a Christian virtue. But faith and hope certainly are. And fear certainly isn’t. If our churches are raising up a generation to crave a security defined in terms of material affluence, physical comfort, and economic stability, then the problems with evangelicalism run even deeper than I thought.

On the second point, Chris writes:

Let’s say John Fea is right (I’m pretty sure he is) that the humanities are some of the key “disciplines that teach evangelical young people how to live together with their deepest differences, reflect on the purpose of life, think critically about the world, cultivate moral courage, make evidence-based arguments, and recognize that life does not always fit easily into binary categories.”Do evangelical churches actually want their young people to learn these things?

John claims (again, correctly) that the humanities “raise the kinds of questions that go to the heart of a Christian education.” Do evangelical churches want their youth asking these kinds of questions? Do they want the next generation to “see the world from the perspective of others,” to learn “humility as we ponder our place in the expanse of human history… to understand the common good and to serve it”? Do they want “informed citizens”?

3 thoughts on “Fear Not: Evangelical Churches and the Humanities

  1. We would have to compare the dropoff in liberal arts majors at ‘evangelical’ schools to the American university system as a whole to blame the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.


    Though the decline of the humanities is getting a lot of attention now, the major drop in enrollments happened between 1970 and 1985. Humanities enrollments dipped from 17.2 percent of all degrees in 1967 to around seven percent in the early 1980s. In 2011, humanities degrees still constituted 6.9 percent of all bachelor’s degrees. In other words, the decline stabilized ten years before current freshmen were even born.

    Current debates were sparked by a much smaller decline. In 2011, there are seven percent fewer students studying the humanities than there were in 2009. The current downward drift is a gentle slope in comparison to the 1970s, when humanities enrollments fell off a cliff.

    As Ben Schmidt, assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, has shown in a series of great graphs, women’s choices of major really explain most of the drop. Starting in the late 1970s, women became the majority of the undergraduate student body at colleges and universities in the United States. By the 2000s, women made up around 57 percent of undergraduates. Women’s decisions became increasingly important, and those choices started to change radically.

    The same percentage of men (7 percent) major in the humanities today as in the 1950s, but women’s interest in the humanities has dropped dramatically. More than 15 percent of all degrees that women earned in the 1950s were in the humanities. This peaked at more than 20 percent in the late 1960s, but plunged to below 10 percent by 1980. Currently, slightly more women than men study the humanities. The shift in women’s choices drove the fall in the share of humanities majors.

    Why did women turn to other subjects, and what are the implications of those choices?


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