EducationTheology & Spirituality

Why Millennial College Students Should Study Theology

Full disclosure: this is not another complaint essay about “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings” or anything of that sort. I think that ground has been thoroughly trodden by others. Instead, I intend to take a rather more theoretical tack.

I recently took a free course in “Securing Digital Democracy” designed by the University of Michigan and offered through the online Coursera platform. While the course content was excellent, I wasn’t impressed by the platform’s design: a series of videos, punctuated at periodic intervals by short tests. These questions could be easily answered by blindly regurgitating lecture material. Fortunately, after having spent a couple of years in law school, I could generally see where this course material fit into the larger picture of cybersecurity and democratic governance…but if I had lacked a background in the topic, the course would have left me with no idea of how to connect its content to a larger understanding of how society works.

Entrepreneurs and new-media pioneers have promised that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are the wave of the future—a revolutionary technology that will massively democratize education and transform the lives of millions. I am less sanguine. Unpleasant facts about 90% course dropout rates aside, the entire MOOC experiment seems to me to reflect the collapse of a holistic vision of higher education. The new model understands “success” in terms of hitting thresholds of credits, rather than coming to grasp a cohesive intellectual tradition. Accordingly, I’m very skeptical that MOOCs will ever replace traditional education: a comprehensive grasp of the humanities simply can’t be chopped up into bite-size, easily digestible chunks. Concepts have to be integrated across disciplinary boundaries.

I attended a small college with a 63-credit core curriculum—over two years of mandatory classes ranging from Western civilization and political theory to formal logic and Euclidean geometry. At the time, my classmates and I complained about it a lot. Why was it fair that we had to sit through endless hours of U.S. history or Western literature when our peers at other schools could enjoy “history of rock and roll” or “contemporary science fiction”? But as time has passed, I’ve become increasingly grateful for my school’s classical approach to studying the liberal arts.

As part of that classicalism, I suggest that a comprehensive approach to the humanities necessarily includes teaching theology. And, at the risk of sparking controversy, I submit that said theological education need not be specifically Christian in character (though without at least a degree of biblical literacy, most of the Western intellectual canon wouldn’t make sense). Talmudic or Qur’anic or Theravada Buddhist studies might be included in this category.

The importance of including theology among the humanities hinges primarily on the need for students to understand how religious beliefs function as per se sufficient reasons for action. That statement sounds complicated, and needs to be unpacked.

For starters, contemporary academic society (at least in my experience) overwhelmingly filters social phenomena through three primary lenses: race, gender, and class. This is too narrow a paradigm (and, probably, explains a lot about how religion is portrayed in media and culture).

If religion is not viewed as something that can impose real moral and behavioral imperatives upon its adherents, social analysis becomes a desperate quest to discern the hidden reasons for action underlying conduct. The common claim “you just disagree with abortion because you are a misogynist who secretly hates women and doesn’t want them to have sexual autonomy” is a prime example of this. While I have no doubt that there are some who sincerely do wish to return to a patriarchal time, I feel fairly secure in claiming that many religious persons who oppose abortion do so out of a sincere moral conviction that fetal life is as valuable as any other life. Sociologically speaking, religious beliefs don’t always operate as cloaks for racist/sexist/classist impulses.

Without understanding that religion works as a path-independent motivation for action, the broad web of the humanities makes far less sense. Maybe Europe’s medieval religious wars occurred because people sincerely believed that heresies would lead their world to eternal damnation, not just because they wanted each other’s land (though, again, that might well have been some people’s motivation). An excellent New York Times op-ed discusses this in greater detail.

In short, religion doesn’t always function as a proxy for the race/gender/class conceptual trifecta: in the minds of adherents, it can be sufficient in itself to motivate action. The notion that religion can be as foundational to believers’ sense of self-concept as LGBT persons’ sexual orientation is to theirs would probably be an academically controversial perspective, but it shouldn’t be. People take their faiths seriously.

If you’re a college student in the humanities reading this, I strongly encourage avoiding the “piecemeal” approach to higher education. A better approach builds on itself to integrate interdisciplinary perspectives. Those boring survey courses are the foundations upon which virtually everything else is predicated: they may be less glamorous, with duller texts and more familiar subject matter, but they lay the necessary groundwork for understanding human life and work across different times and places.

Some may object here that I’m implicitly encouraging fixation on the work of “dead white men” at the expense of diverse perspectives. Quite the contrary: those diverse perspectives are greatly enriched by understanding them in light of the totality of theology, tradition, and culture. Writers like Simone de Beauvoir, Audre Lorde, Ralph Ellison, bell hooks, and Ta-Nehisi Coates were and are reacting to the historical and intellectual movements occurring around them. Similarly, the seminal deconstructionist thinkers of postmodern thought—Deleuze, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and others—saw themselves as advancing a much broader philosophical tradition, carrying it to a logical “next place.” Accordingly, to understand the contribution of critical theorists, or of “alternative” historians like Howard Zinn, one first has to understand what they were criticizing.

Nor am I defending a sort of Pollyanna-esque escape from reality in the face of an unforgiving job market for humanities graduates. Obviously practical training is necessary too (and can be cultivated through internships and other programs); what I’m suggesting is that the core skills of close reading, research, analysis, and synthesis are made most effective when they are developed against a backdrop of integrated knowledge. Moreover, complex intellectual concepts (whether in the home, school, or workplace) are much, much easier to grasp when they can be situated within a preexisting framework of thought.

In sum, the patchwork MOOC-style approach to education likely will offer a frustratingly fragmented approach to the major questions of human history. Coherence—and an ability to comprehend the full panoply of human motivations—can best be imposed upon the human intellectual tradition by starting from common foundations. Even in an era of infinite choices, robust core curricula rooted in classical principles—including theology!—still hold great value.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

Previous post

The Missing Cardinal Virtue (and Deadly Sin)

Next post

On Baptism (Part I)