Can Tolstoy Save Your Marriage?

Some academics across the pond have come up with a new way to teach the humanities to university students. They are attempting to deal with the perennial problem discussed here in previous posts:

Hard-working, pragmatic types, who abound in the United States, have always been suspicious of university education in the humanities. What good does it do to study the works of Milton or Rousseau, let alone the enigmatic pronouncements of Buddha or the Zen poet Basho? The unemployment rate hovers near 10%, and the Chinese are feeding their undergraduates a strict diet of engineering and accountancy. How can we pampered, decadent sorts possibly still be indulging our youth with lectures on Roman poetry and Renaissance painting?

These professors want to emphasize the practical, “real-world” value of the humanities, showing students that the material can change their thinking and help them to live. They see that the modern university teaches this aspect of the humanities very poorly: “It is a basic tenet of contemporary scholarship that no academic should connect works of culture to individual sorrows.”

So they have developed a new type of university called the “School of Life.” The humanities courses are topical: “marriage, child-rearing, choosing a career, changing the world and death.” If the humanities are to survive in higher education in the coming age of budget-cutting and austerity, is this the route they’ll have to go? Will accrediting bodies let them?

From a Christian perspective, one problem I see with this approach is that it is explicitly designed to offer guidance in life without scripture. That will only take you so far . . .

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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4 Responses to Can Tolstoy Save Your Marriage?

  1. Your last point is so right. The humanities gives us an opportunity to learn from the experiences of other humans and to learn how other humans throughout history approached various problems. To the extent that these fellow humans sought solutions to the really big questions and problems of life apart from Scripture, the solutions will be lacking to a greater of lesser extent.

    Question for Dr. J.: How do you avoid this problem when teaching humanities in a more traditional way?

    • Dr. J says:

      If you’re referring to the problem of showing students the relevance of the humanities, I’m constantly making connections between material we’re studying and current events, popular culture, and the like. I keep wondering whether a more topical approach like the one outlined here would get the students more engaged.

      • Dr. J.,

        I was actually thinking about the problem of the humanities providing guidance without Scripture. Is it easier to bring in Scriptural guidance teaching the humanities in a more traditional way?

        • Dr. J says:

          Teaching at a Christian school, I can bring Scripture into the class discussion whenever I want, and I do pretty frequently, usually to point out how a particular figure under discussion stacks up against Christian teaching. So, for example, if a student is trying to figure out how to think about education, I can tell him to beware Rousseau because of the huge discrepancy between his view of human nature and the Bible’s.

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