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The Decline of the Humanities in Adventist Education: Part 1

The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (1863)

If you were to wander the White Oak Mountain trails behind Southern Adventist University over Thanksgiving break in 1968, you might have come across a student baking sweet potatoes over a fire, a second student using a borrowed shovel to dig six feet into a hillside to construct a shelter, and a German Shepard named Killer. 

Larry Payne, David Brass, and the accompanying canine had set out to replicate Henry D. Thoreau’s Walden (1854) experiment, in which he lived in a self-constructed hut in the woods. This was under the conditions that if the students kept a journal of their experience, they wouldn’t have to write the regularly-assigned American Literature research paper. After the fourth day, Brass returned to civilization. He recounted to the Southern Missionary College student newspaper, the Southern Accent that “this experience has been different from the different experience I expected to have . . . I have learned a new dimension in coldness and gained a healthy respect for the Neanderthal man.”

Payne and Brass ran their experiment around the time of the high-water mark of humanities study in Adventist higher education. Since then, the emphasis placed on such study has been in unsteady decline, a downward trend which is not exclusive to Adventism, though some of the reasons for it are. 

A recent New Yorker article, “The End of the English Major,” noted that between 2012 and 2020, the number of students at Arizona State University graduating in literature, language, and history decreased by roughly half. Women’s studies decreased by nearly eighty percent. Depending on how broadly humanities are defined (taken to include fields such as animation and film or not), the drop in graduates is between 16 and 29 percent since 2012. Though the numbers are more difficult to obtain, Adventist higher education is following suit. 

A Century of Humanities Courses at Southern Adventist University

Southern’s humanities courses were at their peak percentage in the early 20th century–ironically before the school had any humanities departments or majors (though there is a catch to this, as will be examined). Even as colleges were adding courses like Broom-making (for Southern’s broom business), Civilian Protection (to defend against aerial attacks of Pacific Union College), and Aviation 101, courses such as Appalachian Studies and Vienna to Vietnam were added at only a slightly lower rate. The dip between the 1970s and 1980s corresponds with trends in the wider United States as humanities programs collapsed nationwide on the coattails of the economy. They eventually recovered, mostly.

Following this period the divergence in percentages steepened, reflecting a declining emphasis on general education requirements and a drop in humanities majors. 

Number of Humanities Courses Compared to Non-Humanities Courses at Southern Adventist University


“Humanities” usually includes history, modern and ancient languages, philosophy and religion, literature, fine and performing arts, cultural studies, and media–disciplines that ask, “What is it like to be a human?”

Why, then, are Adventist colleges and universities seeing the decline of the programs most intentionally attuned to helping students become critical thinkers, good communicators, and empathetic humans with a deeper understanding of the humanity Adventism seeks to serve?

The trend and its historical antecedents make one wonder what an Adventism devoid of humanities would look like.

Ellen White and the Humanities

Ellen White’s Education (1903) was written primarily for parents of elementary school-aged children, not for guidance administering university systems. However, it is worth noting White’s tone and approach to the humanities in the book because of how widely it has been read and cited. 

Especially in the early years of Adventist colleges, Education was quoted extensively in school handbooks and catalogs. For instance, quotations from the book made up most of the dress code section of the Southern Junior College (Southern Adventist University) Annual Calendar 1923-1924. One excerpt: “A person’s character is judged by his style of dress . . . Chaste simplicity in dress, when united with modesty of demeanor, will go far toward surrounding a young woman with that atmosphere of sacred reserve which will be her shield from a thousand perils”

In Education, White encouraged students to study history primarily to understand prophecy and to emulate the character of the great biblical figures. 

For White, reading literature could be useful, not essential, and might be viewed against the backdrop of her writings as an “artificial excitement” that could disrupt the ideal quiet, bucolic life of a growing child. In contrast, White extols the virtues of studying nature at far greater length. Nature is closer to God than are the creations of human hands.

Adventism emerged during America’s Romantic era, and Education is a thoughtful instruction manual on how to raise a Romantic Christian child. “Nature” was seen as the core of earthly reality during this period, the most real thing. Henry David Thoreau ran his famous hermetic experiment living in solitude “off the land” by a lake three years before the Millerites’ Great Disappointment. 

Thoreau’s ideas in Walden and the ideas of other Romanticists echoed off the cliffs of Albert Bierstadt’s sublime, oil-painted peaks and the walls of lecture halls and city church sanctuaries for decades to come–nature is “where it’s at.”

Human constructions (like literature or school buildings) could be, at best, weak impersonations of this true, God-created reality. The Romantic preference for nature study and fascination with lifestyles like Thoreau’s did not end in the 1800s, as evidenced by Payne and Brass’s experiment (which, in turn, points to the robust literature and philosophy curriculum of that later time).

Concerning literature, White explained in Education that “as a means of intellectual training, the Bible is more effective than any other book, or all other books combined” (pg. 124). Her statements like this do not actively condemn literature or the humanities but render them somewhat irrelevant if students have access to a rigorous theology program. 

White made her opinion on fiction clear in her compiled writings published in 1930 as Messages to Young People: “The readers of fiction are indulging an evil that destroys spirituality” (pg. 272). 

In The Ministry of Healing (1905), White warned solemnly, “For the lover of fiction . . . total abstinence is his only safety” (pg. 446). Although she referred specifically to the popular pulp fiction of the time, not the broad category of what we now see as fiction, her opinions helped tune the Adventist zeitgeist into which universities were born. 

While fairly few American Adventist families today have concrete reservations about reading fiction or watching films, enough unease lingers that many students and parents still avoid investing the time and money on the many works of fiction that a literature degree requires. 

Influential Adventist historian Walter Utt in his history of Pacific Union College, A Mountain, A Pickaxe, A College (1996), recorded a faculty member’s sentiment during the school’s early days: “We are by no means certain that there is time left [sic] our youth who are just entering upon any of these courses to complete it” (pg. 6). Some at the school were even alarmed by the college’s rapid growth. The 200-strong student body in 1883 led some to accuse conference leadership of a lack of faith in the Second Coming (A Mountain, pg. 8). The school not only lasted but also employed its first “real, live” PhD in 1928 to teach English literature and languages. 

Nancy Lecourt, retired academic dean of Pacific Union College, noted that the high point of English enrollment at PUC happened at the beginning of her employment in the late 1980s, and has seen numbers slowly drop since. This parallels the trend at Southern Adventist University and other Adventist humanities programs. PUC now offers language study solely in lower division Spanish. From 1953 to 1963 it offered language courses including Old English (in its English master’s program), Middle High German, Chinese, and Russian. 

What kind of college?

The core ongoing tension in Adventist colleges may be the decision about what genus of institution they want to be. The primary viable options are these: a “regular college” – a liberal arts school seeking to cultivate skills and interests in students for numerous aspects of life, or a “Bible college” – a vocation-oriented program highly attuned to an Adventist reading of the Bible that prepares students for employment within the denomination. 

In 1903, Southern Training School (now Southern Adventist University) was thoroughly a “Bible college.” Its undergraduate catalog for the academic year 1903-1904 asserted that institutions like it were needed for “speedy preparation for the work of God. The only purpose for the establishment of this grade of schools should be the training of Christian workers: and everything that would pertain to the most rapid advancement of this work, should be placed within reach of the school . . .” and went on to explain why the school should be in a rural location so as not to allow students to be distracted by the city. It offered programs with direct, mission-oriented applications such as nursing, ministry, canvassing, and teaching.

In contrast, by the 1960s, PUC was far more akin to a true liberal arts “regular college.” It offered courses taken for student interest with no obvious direct career application such as The History of Modern Russia (likely reflecting a fascination many young people developed during the Cold War). Its art department claimed that its majors did not need to be vocation-bound, that it was also concerned with “those whose interests may be avocational rather than professional, and who recognize the cultural advantages to be obtained from the study of art, or who find in artistic endeavor a high degree of personal enjoyment and satisfaction.”

In A Mountain, A Pickaxe, A College, Utt noted about PUC, “the college had to live with a dichotomy in its constituency between those who saw the school as a place where minds might open and character develop to Christian maturity and those who saw schools as places for custodial care, while providing requisite grades for professional school,” or entry into the missional field of choice (pg. 8).

Because PUC was on the West Coast, however, and farther from the emerging and developing Adventist administration, it lived under less General Conference surveillance than its Eastern counterparts such as SAU and Andrews University, and thus was able to frequently tip toward “regular college.”

Adventism could also be described as a “denomination of doing.” The simplified dichotomy is not between sciences and humanities, as one might expect and as may be more accurate of broader U.S. education, but perhaps between what is seen as “useful” and “useless.” Pre-med is a useful track. Nursing is useful. So are teaching, pastoring, and more recently business. 

Lecourt surmises that study of the humanities in education as a whole was likely at its peak throughout the 60s and 70s, reflecting the blooming interest in political sciences, national and group histories, and reinterpretive literary critique, surrounding protest of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and other social movements. 

During this time,the GI Bill allowed the many students attending college after involvement in WWII or the Korean War to earn bachelor’s and graduate degrees debt-free, irrespective of discipline. In the 1970s, PUC boasted nearly 20 faculty on leave, supported by the college, doing doctoral work at research universities across the country, including Yale, Stanford, Harvard, and the University of Chicago. The “life of the mind” was booming.

Adventist Humanities

An important distinction should be made between “humanities” and “liberal arts” education. This essay is chiefly considering the former, which falls under the umbrella of “liberal arts” alongside the three other “useless” categories of social sciences, natural sciences, and mathematics. The overarching strife may be between liberal arts and vocational education, but here the focus examines the humanities specifically. But there is another category that most of the country does not have to wrestle with: Adventist humanities.

The courses early in Southern’s history fit snugly under the umbrella of “Bible college”. The Southern Junior College Annual Calendar 1923-1924 states that History of Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages was a course “replete with the record of fulfilled prophecy. Special emphasis [was] laid on the epochs of Macedonian supremacy and the kingdoms of Alexander’s successors, the connection to of the Old and New Testaments, the rise of Christianity, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the ten kingdoms of prophecy, the rise and development of the Papacy, Mohammedanism, the Crusades, and the Renaissance.” This is an example of history in service to theology. It is also vocationally flavored, equipping teachers, for example, to serve the denomination in a world that must very shortly come to an end.

 Adventist humanities, which Spectrum contributors have played a key role in calling out over the decades, are not value-less, but they serve a far more specific purpose than do general humanities. Gary Land, in a 1980 Spectrum article, “From Apologetics to History: The Professionalization of Adventist Historians,” offered Mervyn Maxwell’s Tell It to the World as an example of Adventist theology serving the humanities: “While his footnotes indicated a mind trained in the critical method, Maxwell’s text revealed his concern to be primarily theological rather than historical . . . In short, Maxwell was not so much interested in interpreting history as he was in using history as a springboard for arguing a particular theology.”

What now?

And as humanities programming dwindles, will the broader culture of Adventism shift in response? As a recent graduate of an Adventist university, I am worried. Maybe I have not lived long enough to hold a nostalgic “we’re doomed” mentality, but the hint of one is creeping into my mind. I’m worried that we as a tribe will become a people isolated from an understanding of our own humanness. I am worried that we will not have learned to articulate our unique Adventist-ness, and that we will be tied together only by a lifestyle of “don’ts” rather than vibrant theologies of body and community and ecology and rest. 

As much as I find myself at odds with my Adventist culture sometimes, I am afraid of losing it. Insulating young Adventist minds with pre-digested creeds and a prefabricated will to work is a quick recipe for a very bored and disillusioned group of people, accented by a zealous minority who feel compelled to spread this boredom and disillusionment among the nations. 

Adventist education seems to be undergoing a revolution of sorts, and a revolution is always a “return,” a revolvere, to something. It had begun to grow up, to work though the stages of Maslow’s hierarchy from meeting physical needs to practicing creativity and self-expression. It grew out of the purely vocational models that made sense to its 1860s theology of quick-fixes and member counts and into master’s programs teaching Old English and students playing Thoreau. But until something shifts, Adventist higher education appears to be returning to the vocational model from whence it came.

Title Image: The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak (1863) by Albert Bierstadt

About the author

Christina Cannon is a researcher and writer currently based in San Francisco. She is a recent graduate of Southern Adventist University’s history program. More from Christina Cannon.
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