A piece by Nathan Schneider, “Why the World Needs Religious Studies,” is making the rounds in various forums like Facebook and Twitter. And with good reason. Schneider highlights some some helpful benefits to studying world religions and points out how foundational religion is to much of the goings on in the world even though religion is often pushed to the background within public discourse in North American and Western Europe. However, as helpful as the reflection is I think there is an unhelpful temptation that it may help to reinforce.
In an age of decreasing public funding allocated toward higher education as well as a student loan debt problem most institutions are finding themselves in budgetary squeezes. Naturally, departments and their professors find themselves, either explicitly nor not, needing to justify their continued existence not only to administrators and elected officials but also to parents of prospective students. The natural tendency, which Schneider’s piece appropriates, is to explain how the liberal arts (which is invariably one of the prominent soft targets) or religious studies (whether it is a subdivision of liberal arts/humanities or is its own school or department) can have a practical benefit in landing and succeeding in a career. There is nothing wrong, per se, with this response. I think all of the benefits that Schneider mentions are exactly on point. Yet, if this is where we stop, or even, if this is where we start when we attempt to justify religious studies/humanities/liberal arts then I think we may subtly undermine two other–and more important–facets of these disciplines.
Mark Roche outlines three reasons why someone would choose to study liberal arts in his book length treatment of the question, Why Choose the Liberal Arts (Roche’s words in bold, my thoughts added after):
- The intrinsic value of learning for its own sake, including exploration of the profound questions that give meaning to life. This, I think, is where we should start. When someone asks, “What value does religious studies/humanities/liberal arts have?” I think our first and default answer should be that this kind of study is inherently valuable–the questions and topics that it explores are those that humans naturally gravitate to. Those of us who engage in these fields have a prophetic duty to remind our institutions and our culture that a flourishing and satisfying life does not arise out of mere service to economics and utility.
- The formative influence of the liberal arts (and/or religious studies) on character and on the development of a sense of higher purpose and vocation. Roche puts this last but I think it should be second so I’ve taken the liberty to switch up his list. After all of the various economic implosions that the world has been through is there anyone left who thinks that all colleges need to do is to churn out really efficient and highly tuned financial and economic technicians? In other words, should we bracket out things like ethics, philosophy, religious studies, literature, etc. from finance or engineering degrees so that we can save more room in the curriculum for additional classes in derivatives trading or maybe even just shorten a finance degree to three years? Of course, no one can force an ethical vision upon someone–not even the threat of law and disgorgment was enough to prevent a Bernie Madoff, yet, I think it would be wise for schools to present finance as something more than facilitating transactions or making deals. How does finance fit into the service of humanity, how can one navigate its ethical challenges, what are the religious dimensions to finance? And even in this last question I think we need to approach it with more depth than merely, say, understanding sharia law so that we can make a killing off Islamic banking.
- The cultivation of intellectual virtues necessary for success beyond the academy. Of course we want students to be able to find satisfying and gainful employment once they graduate and schools should try to give them the tools they need to do this. But, this is still, in my mind, a third tier goal. Otherwise, if we prize employment skills over and above and to the detriment of the previous two goals we essentially transform the “university” into a technical school. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a technical school–I think we need to make them more prominent parts of our society and raise the social perception of them–yet, if we see colleges and universities as stepping stones that merely give our kids the skills and resume fodder to get them a job then we have changed the very nature of what colleges and universities have been for greater than half a millennium. Traditionally, they were places that prepared people for a vocation but also institutions in which students contemplated the world and their place within it and responsibilities to it.