(By: Nick Kennicott)
I have thought a lot lately about how often I hear or read someone mocking the liberal arts. The study of humanities has fallen on hard times over the past few decades, and culturally, it shows. Education in America and Western culture, in general, has shifted away from a pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful, eschewing the very humanistic ideals that formed America in the first place. In return, the majority of students hear from their teachers that all they’re really doing is preparing for the next test, preparing for the next grade, and preparing to get to college.
One of my closest friends has the unenviable job of reading essays written by aspiring college students applying to the well-respected institution he works for. In a recent conversation, he told me that one of the questions the students are asked to write about is, “Why do you want to go to college?” He said at least 50% of the essays say something along the lines of wanting to get a high paying job, so as far as they can tell, the only logical next step is to go to college. Very few young people are taught how to learn, and as a result, there’s very little desire to engage with ancient literature, understand history in context, think critically about art or music, or wrestle with competing ideas about the reasons why men and women make the decisions they do. Enough with the reading and writing and debating and speeches, just show me the money. Don’t believe me? Ask ten teenagers how many books they’ve read on their own from cover-to-cover in the past twelve months, and then fasten your seatbelt to hear the answer. I’m not down on the teens… go and ask their parents the same question and try not to have a major medical emergency (don’t say I didn’t warn you). 27% of adults in a recent Pew Survey admitted to having not read a single book in an entire year. To the man or woman with a love for humanities, that’s like saying they didn’t breathe! I feel my heart nearly stop when I hear those awful words, “I hate reading!”
I’m actually quite unsurprised that many college campuses across America have turned into offense-free zones where guest speakers with ideas (usually Christians and/or conservative) that do not conform to the majority of the students and faculty on the campus are harassed, maligned, and often cancelled because the very thought of them being on the premises is too much for people to handle. I’m not surprised when graduates walk out of graduation speeches by people they don’t like, I’m not surprised when conservative professors are fired for even suggesting different ideas should have a place in university classrooms, or when entire institutions are maligned and boycotted for holding to principles that differ from their counterparts. Why would people who were never made to read and discuss and debate dissenting ideas in the first place ever think there was all the sudden a place for those ideas? How can people who think injustice is defined as being offended ever engage in civil discourse? I suggest the slow movement away from the liberal arts in western society has created the culture of division in America that is so often defined as left and right, and yet both sides are plagued with the same malady.
Too often, “liberal arts” is used as a pejorative term rather than describing a noble pursuit. I am particularly disheartened when I hear disparaging remarks from Christians about these very ideas that set the stage for the Protestant Reformation and were foundational in the thinking they most admire in many of their heroes of the faith. C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton both said they hated their studies in grammar and Latin, but also admitted it was those areas of study that made them the writers and thinkers they became. The Greek and Hebrew languages were all but lost along with most of the works of the Church Fathers throughout the middle ages, and if it weren’t for Christian humanists rediscovering and studying them, and using the printing press to distribute them, where would the church be today? I thank God for inspiring His people to reject the status quo of their day to make discoveries of the works of old and renew the ideas and methods that formed many great nations, men, and women.
I truly believe churches would be far more mature, sermons would be far more substantive, and outreach and evangelism would be far more effective if we took Christian humanism seriously–if we taught ourselves and our children how to think, how to reason, how to discuss, how to read and study. We would be far more conversant with our culture in a winsome way if we engaged with the standard Western canon of literature and if we studied and honed the arts of logic and rhetoric, even from a very early age. The church would be far more equipped to answer fools (Proverbs 26:5) and make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in them with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).
This short film (below) is a great piece that depicts something of what causes unrest in my heart (yes, I recognize the irony of including a dialogue-free film after all my blather about reading books and listening to and engaging in discourse). I appreciate the very notion being portrayed that perhaps we’re doing it all wrong! We used to have a culture that valued art and music, speech and well-crafted argument, stage productions and substantive political debate. No longer. All of life has conformed to the cookie-cutter ideals of the industrial revolution and now we think ourselves successful when we continually stamp out more of the same. God has gifted each person differently, and each different person should be given opportunities to explore and utilize their unique gifts that they might flourish in ways others don’t… it’s a humanist ideal that we’ve lost, but I hope there’s still time to see it recovered. Enjoy the film.