To my great joy and gratitude, I joined the Covenant School faculty this year as an upper school humanities teacher. I would like to introduce myself and my role by saying a few things about what the humanities are and why we care about them at Covenant.
The study of the humanities, at least as we understand it today, arose in the Renaissance era (mid 14th – mid 16thcenturies). Fueled by the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman classics, Renaissance humanists looked to the distinctly human fields of history, languages, literatures, cultures, the arts, and philosophy to cast a vision for a healthier, more holistic society. In doing so, they dwelled on those questions that get to the heart of what it means to live well as a person: What are goodness and beauty? What are truth and justice? What is the good life? Still today, the humanities are a key means by which we reflect on these important questions as we seek to grow in wisdom and virtue.
With the rise and influence of modernism, the humanities have fallen on hard times. In a variety of ways, universities and high schools are shrinking their humanities programs, if not altogether eliminating them. Administrators frequently refer to the “need” to give students “21stcentury skills for 21stcentury jobs” as a reason for the cuts. Such an explanation, however well-intended, is the fruit of modernist thinking. Modernism’s worship of the twin gods of Control and Progress in the Temple of the Tyrannical Now sends the humanities straight into exile. The humanities are simply too committed to the past, too inexact and inefficient, too caught in the nebulous gray to rank in modernism’s priorities.
Please do not hear me say that modernism is entirely bad; indeed, much good has come from it. (I, for one, prefer modern medicine to any alternative.) My point is simply that Covenant School’s high regard for the humanities is not a given in today’s educational climate. And this raises the question, Why does Covenant School care about them?
In On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) identifies three kinds of things in the world: things to use, things to enjoy, and things both to use and to enjoy. No one stands in awe over the intrinsic goodness of hammers and paintbrushes; we just use them to produce things we enjoy. For Augustine, the only “thing” that exists purely for enjoyment is the Holy Trinity (see Ps 16:11 and the Westminster Catechism Q/A 1). The humanities fall into the hybrid third category, things we use and enjoy, and recognizing this helps us put words to why we value them.
We know from experience that great literature, great art, and the force and delicacy of a symphony can be objects of enjoyment, even wonder. My favorite novel is The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The plot revolves around the relationships between a deadbeat father and his three sons, all very different from each other. The Brothers Karamazov never fails to acknowledge brokenness (Dostoyevsky understood it well), yet the light of redemption does shine through, sometimes brighter and sometimes dimmer, but never extinguished. It is a book to be wrestled with and savored. That is to say, it is very enjoyable. Yet, The Brothers Karamazov is not the ultimate joy, nor by any means is Dostoyevsky the Great Artist. The novel is rather a signpost that points in various ways toward the supreme Creator and his perfect glory. The novel invites its readers to reflect on their own contributions to brokenness and redemption. It offers itself as a tool for sanctification. Accordingly, the novel may be enjoyed for its intrinsic goodness, but is also a means of growing in wisdom, virtue, and holiness. Thus it is with the humanities in general.
But what about works of art, literature, and philosophy that are not particularly godly? What place do these have in a classical Christian school? I can illustrate the tension directly from our European humanities course. For the last several weeks, we have been reading Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513), which, to say the least, will not appear on anyone’s list of best Christian books. It is a manual on how to get and keep power by almost any expedient. How do students grow in wisdom, virtue, and holiness by reading such a book?
Often, the best way to learn virtue is by looking vice in the face. By reading books like The Prince, we give ourselves the opportunity to reflect critically on their values – values that are widespread in our world. As we engage such works, we must identify not only what we disagree with, but also why. In the process, we refine our own value systems, always looking to Christ as our teacher and authority. Discussing The Prince, students discover that the evil in Machiavelli’s work is not power as such, for God himself has power; indeed, God is power. Machiavelli’s evil lies in the violent and selfish ways in which he obtains and uses power. Christians will note that Christ himself is a Prince. How does He gain authority? What does He do with power? Even The Prince, replete as it is with folly, vice, and sacrilege, can be cultivated for fruitful growth in wisdom, virtue, and holiness.
To circle back to the question, Covenant School cares about the humanities because we care about humans. By critically and carefully studying the humanities we can become more fully human, both individually and collectively. Let me say it more Christianly: We care about the humanities because they are a means of sanctification and re-creation. They are a way in which, by the Holy Spirit’s illumination, we grow more like Christ, who is himself what all humans were created to be: the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15; cf. Gen 1:27).