Thursday, September 07, 2006

To the prospective humanities student

So you're about to start university. Excited? Nervous? I know I certainly was! And why not? It's after all, the time of life to spread those proverbial wings, as you take those tentative steps out of the nest. New friends, new environment, new style of teaching & learning, new everything. And kudos to you too for choosing to do the humanities (liberal arts if you're in America). Be warned, as you get nearer graduation, as you look around you and see your various engineering, medical, science-y, and business friends all working on something tangible, you might, understandably, wonder if you're learning anything all that useful; if you have anything at all to contribute to the world. I suspect even those of us who feel strongly about the value of the humanities will have moments of weakness when we wonder whether the common arguments about the humanities cultivating ethical foundations and aesthetic appreciation holds weight. After all, weren't the Nazis reading Proust while their victims writhed in pain next door? [1]

But wait, there's more. You're not only about to head off to university, you're heading off to college as a Christian. Maybe you've grown up in a Christian family all your life. Or you just became one recently. Or maybe, although you regard yourself as a Christian, you've never been able to quite fit the mold. So maybe going to university scares you a little, 'cause you've heard all about those stories of how Christians are ridiculed in class. Or you're afraid that you could lose your faith. Or maybe you're excited, 'cause now you have a chance to explore all those niggly doubts that bothered you but were stifled back home. Whatever your background, a whole world of possibilities have opened up. What should you do?

Full disclosure. I am a recent graduate myself, not so far ahead of any of you guys, so I can't claim to have enjoyed the fruits of reflection; I am not distanced enough yet. Although I suppose I am reasonably intelligent, I will never be a heavyweight intellectual. Because my field is English literature, a lot of my following comments will naturally mostly apply to those who are doing likewise. Also, my comments will reflect my own experience, that is, a non-Westerner studying in the humanities faculty of a Western university. And for those of you who have had the privilege of having a good education in the humanities at secondary school level, treasure it. One of the things I realised at this level was just how poorly Sejarah or History is taught in Malaysia up to Form 5, where rote learning is overemphasised at the expense of learning the tools of proper historical analysis. I honestly felt this handicap when I was writing some of my essays, finding it difficult to sift through often dense material. These are merely intermittent reflections, hopefully they might be of some worth.

Firstly, don't be naïve. Certainly 50 years ago Christians might have had a hard time in the sciences, but today the situation is reversed. Many working in the sciences have now realised that there not need necessarily be a disjunction between science and faith, and many prominent scientists are also Christians. [2] A student worker once remarked to me that it's the students in the humanities nowadays who need the most support. Be aware of how your discipline has developed, and the impact of what is known as “critical theory” on just about every humanities department. [3] I suspect many of us studying the humanities are in some way preoccupied with the question of what it means to be human, after all, that must be where the term “humanities” come from, right? But increasingly, in many humanities department there exists a currency of thought that is hostile to the human. Constructivist theories of the self, i.e all of our knowledge is constructed and contingent on experience and perception rather than reflecting any transcendent reality is often assumed. This is especially so in the English department (less so in philosophy). I remember how one of my tutors told one of my coursemates to remove all mention of any universal values in her essay, as it was “outmoded” and has “no credibility”.

Therefore, it's important to recognize the importance that the lordship of Christ extends to every realm, including the life of the mind and the land of academia. Before you go off to college, do yourself a favour and read Byron Borger's important essay Making the most of college:Learning to love good books. Develop a Christian worldview and be committed to thinking things through biblically. If you're like me, you might find this frequently difficult, and you're unsure if Christianity really does speak to those issues. (or if it does, you just don't know what it's saying!) That's ok. We don't always need to know the answers to the questions that are being asked. It is faithfulness and biblical fidelity that matters more. If our faith is true, it will hold up.

There are many good books on worldviews. Middleton and Walsh's The Transforming Vision is a standard in this field (although it is difficult to get in the UK). James Sire's been doing lots of thinking in this area too, and his Universe Next Door and Discipleship of the Mind are also standards, as is Gene Veith's Loving God with all your mind and the similar sounding book by JP Moreland,Love Your God with all your mind. My only complaint is that these books are all written by Americans, and therefore, a lot of its more practical advice is only suitable for a North American audience. Where are the Brits? A particular favourite of mine is Charlie Peacock's New Way to Be Human, which is not only instructive, but also a work of art in itself, shimmering in lyrical prose. If you are in a British university, it might be worth getting Marcus Honeysett's Meltdown, which briefly explores some of the big ideas by the theorists, and the impact of these ideas on both the university and the church, although you won't be satisfied if you're looking for something beyond the introductory level.

But don't dismiss secular education. Learn as much as possible and to the best of your ability. This isn't always easy, and I confess to cutting corners under pressure. If you have a good mind, use it. There is much you can learn from, even from your professors who might be avowedly anti-Christian. Wrestle, if you can, with viewpoints different from your own. Oh, and this was my big mistake – even if you have to take a lower grade sometimes, don't ever skim on reading the primary material for secondary material. It might seem more impressive when you're quoting some other academic who's done more thinking and research on something than you have, but in the long run, wrestling with the primary materials will serve you better. Don't repeat this fallacy! (But if you do fall to the temptation, there is no condemnation here from one who has also fallen) ;-)

Get to know the God's story of his people, that is, the story of the Bible. We need to get acquainted with this particular story because it is also the story with which we participate in. [4] A good Bible overview is particularly helpful in this. [5] As we see redemptive history being fleshed out, we gain confidence in God's promises and a renewed resolve to live in line with his will.

Get involved in the local church. It's easy in the rarefied atmosphere of academia to forget this, but this is really important. Parachurch organizations are good and very helpful, but if we solely depend on this for fellowship, we are in danger of missing out on something larger. It can be something “small”, stewarding, stacking chairs etc. In all this, we are serving the larger Christian community. Sometimes being humanities students can equip us in very useful ways, for example, they can be very gifted in handling the Bible.

Sometimes as a humanities student, in telling others about Jesus, you will meet the philosophically-inclined type. You know the ones I mean (you might even be one yourself), those that seem to speak in four-syllable words all the time and who can introduce 5 different abstract concepts in 10 seconds! If you know that you're out of your depth intellectually, don't despair. Remember, then, you're not there to win an argument, although that doesn't mean you can't have a rational conversation. (After all, part of being a human is being rational.) It's the gospel that saves, not arguments! Do get yourself acquainted with possible answers to common questions, but don't forget that humans are more than just rational beings.

And have fun, it'd be over before you know it. And hey, when it's time to go into the "real world", maybe you'll discover that all those charges of the humanities not being relevant to the real world is actually a good thing. ;-)

[1] If you are seeking a healing balm in the face of these doubts, reading Peter Leithart's article: 'For Useless Learning' in the conservative journal First Things might help. Reading it at the end of my first year was good for me.
[2] See the Agora's paper on science and religion, for example.
[3] I'm obviously more familiar with the literary version, but there is no doubt that there is overlap.
[4] See Eugene Peterson's Living into God's Story
[5] Recommendations include Vaughan Roberts' God's Big Picture, Bartholomew and Goheen's The Drama of Scripture, Michael Williams' Far as the Curse is Found.

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Anonymous alwyn said...

You can also try Bryan Walsh's "Colossians: Remixed"; a good book on worldviews and life in community.

Nice blog, btw...:)

4:13 am  
Blogger BK said...

Thanks! I visit your blog too from time to time, and I know you're a big fan of that particular book. Haven't seen it here in Britain though. Am reading Colossians for my quiet times at the moment.

(So people do still visit my blog!)

7:00 pm  

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