On the Value of the Humanities and Religious Studies

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Susan Henking is President of Shimer College, an unconventional great books college in Chicago, Illinois. She got there by going to college as a first generation college goer, majoring in Religion and in Sociology at Duke University and then pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in Religion and Psychological Studies. While there, she fell in love with undergraduate liberal education. Her scholarly work includes co-editing two books, Que(e)rying Religion (1997) and Mourning Religion (2008) as well as many articles and chapters in the fields of religion and the social sciences, and LGBTQ matters as they intersect with religious studies.  Susan was founding editor of the Teaching Religious Studies series of the American Academy of Religion and served on the AAR Board for 9 years. She taught religious studies, women’s studies and related matters for several decades and lives in Chicago and Geneva NY with her partner, Betty Bayer.  

Some time ago, I was in a beautiful office high up above the streets of Chicago, looking out over Lake Michigan with a man who once led one of the most powerful energy companies in the world. He was, I discovered, a history major in college – and no, he who was not “born” to the silver spoon.

Clearly, a humanities major could be highly successful.  Indeed, in his view, that humanities major – that history major – was something he used every day and not just since retirement.

Perhaps the reason that day stands out for me is that we are surrounded by voices each and every day that dismiss the value of liberal arts degrees and most especially humanities degrees, arguing that they are either useless or a luxury.  Senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio claimed some months ago not only that welders make more money than philosophers but that we need welders more than we need philosophers President Obama has joked about art history majors (and apologized for doing so). Failure to understand the value and importance of the humanities, it seems, is a bipartisan issue.

This failure is not only a failure of politicians. Though the show has retired, some of us still remember voices on NPR Car Talk making fun of the liberal arts. Elsewhere, there are what appear to be endless headlines and data storms about the ways that various majors affect one’s income both immediately after graduation and across a lifetime. In many cases, the headlines seem to raise the question: why would anyone do that?  What is the use of such a degree?  Isn’t it simply a luxury? Certainly, recent data shows humanities majors who actually graduate from college have an income well in excess of those with no college, but the income measure lags when compared to some other majors.

We can, of course, argue with this kind of evidence (or prejudice).  We can draw on data that shows strengths of the humanities (and liberal arts) as those most desired in today’s workplace (examples include critical thinking and the capacity to work in teams).  We can point, as I have above, to exceptional individuals who have succeeded in socioeconomic and leaderly ways.  We can argue, as the Gallup-Purdue index does, that there are other measures of life that matter, including (and do not gasp) happiness, length of life, or moral stature.

One must survive, and for those reasons income matters, but as Abraham Maslow taught us long ago, survival is not everything. Indeed, it is not enough.

While those who target the humanities often pick and choose amongst areas to critique,  religious studies is not exempted from the concerns raised here – or the value added that is highlighted in the Gallup-Purdue index. The arguments are, in some ways the same, right?

Yes. And no.  There are additional reasons why a religious studies (which I too think of as a studying religion in culture) major is a worthy degree.  To address the specifics let me point to how I answer when asked how – or why – my religious studies trained PhD connects to my work as a college president, where balancing budgets, regulatory concerns, and related matters make up much of work life.

Let me begin with a negative: my religious studies teaching and scholarship did not prepare me to lead or want to lead a religious institution. Insofar as religious institutions are institutions and leadership within that context no different from leadership in secular contexts (yes, churches and mosques must balance their budgets), religious studies can prepare one for such leadership. But religious studies  does not de facto prepare religious leaders.  It prepares something different.

Having said this, religious studies did prepare me for leadership of a college in several major ways that are part of what a religious studies major prepares folks for as well – whether one enters the academy or becomes, as the history major I mentioned above did, a part of the business and corporate world.

  • Organizational leadership requires, according to authors Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal, understanding and maneuvering the structural frame, the human resource frame, the political frame, and the symbolic frame. Religious studies, in my view, prepared me well for this, especially for understanding the ways in which college presidents, and all leadership, is about symbolics. By preparing us for all of these areas, religious studies prepares us to function well within institutional contexts, leading from where ever we are I the institution.
  • Religious studies prepared me to wrestle with problems that are in some sense insoluble problems, the impossible to fix for eternity kinds of problems which we have to act on today. This is, at least in part, what college presidents do. We pursue an answer to today’s concerns, knowing that the answer will always already be partial. Ethicists have called much of what we wrestle with every day “wicked problems.”
  • Religious studies – at least sometimes – is allied with social science approaches. This can be about understanding institutional functioning, power, and more. It can come equipped with prestige enhancing aspects — demographers and data trumping symbols and hermeneutics, for example. Those skills can come in handy.
  • And, of course, we look at religion. Today, that is critically important to making sense of the world in which we live, whether that is why our office mate ought not be invited to coffee, what it means that our neighbors think Jesus spoke English, how to interact with international colleagues or something larger and broader in its impact. To make sense of what it means to be an inclusive world, we must make sense of religion in all of its manifestations, including the many ways the category is deployed in our world for good or ill.

So: the humanities are, in my view valuable. Religious studies is too. They prepare us to survive – and for much much more. They do so largely because they can support our curiosity, our creativity, our humaneness and our hope.

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