Donald Drakeman, whom the Center for Law and Religion is honored to have on its Board of Advisers, has a very persuasive and sensible column over at the Chronicle of Higher Education on the relationship of the economy to education in the humanities. It seems to me that the column has direct relevance to the study of law and religion in universities and graduate schools. And Don himself is highly qualified to speak about these matters, given his extensive experience in both the humanistic and economic spheres (those familiar with Don’s work in the religion clauses will recognize the reference to George Bancroft below). A bit from the column:

The good news, for those of us who believe in the importance of the humanities, is that once the bread lines disappear, people realize that they cannot live by bread alone. The important questions addressed in religion, literature, the arts, and elsewhere in the humanities will always captivate us, and we will continue to return to them when we can.

It seems unlikely—at least to me, a businessman with a doctorate in religion—that an oversupply of people studying the humanities actually causes economic decline. But hard times will very likely—and predictably—drive students toward fields that seem more practical. When that happens, the humanities should not, as the politicians say, let a good crisis go to waste. We need to make better arguments for the benefits of studying the humanities, and, in doing so, we need to think more carefully about where the humanities and the “real world” intersect. It happens far more often than might be expected by either side.

Humanities scholars often cite the intrinsic value of studying the humanities—that it is good in and of itself, and requires no defense on the basis of pragmatism. That may well be true, but the humanities also have immense practical relevance to how we, as a society, make some of our most critical political and economic decisions, from the nature of our constitutional rights to the shape of our health-care system.

For example, the opinions in the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the right to bear arms read like a history of firearms in the 18th century, and we owe the idea of a wall of separation between church and state as much to the historian George Bancroft as to Thomas Jefferson. The Affordable Care Act has deeper roots in philosophical notions of distributive justice than in the latest advances in medical science.

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