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Solomon’s Choice: Valuing Biblical Studies and Humanities Education

By Jason Silverman
Trinity College Dublin
May 2012

The current economic climate has threatened funding for many things, education perhaps foremost among them. This is partially due to a simple shortage of cash. However, there is an underlying reductionist understanding of education that, if not challenged, threatens to impoverish our cultures. The reductionism to which I refer is the instrumentalization of education. This is evident in governments’ demands for monetarily quantified results of research, in students’ horizons fixed merely on employability, and in the general public resentment of the cost of higher education. More worryingly, this reductionism also rears its ugly head within academia, often under the guise of claiming that the “hard” sciences and business studies are somehow more important and worthy of funding. This attitude attacks all the humanities and arts, but it is especially true for Biblical Studies, sometimes seen as irrelevant even by other humanities scholars. Those of us who are engaged in researching and teaching in Biblical Studies need to be more proactive in defending the place of Biblical Studies and of the humanities in the academy and in society. We need to do this not merely for our own careers, but because it directly impacts the kind of society in which we wish to live.

The real, underlying issue is the question of what the point of education really is. Do we become educated and educate others merely to increase likely job earnings?1 Is education to improve technology?2 Is it so as not to feel stupid in social situations?3 Or does education constitute a value in and of itself?

In my opinion, education—in general and in the humanities in particular—is something to be valued in and of itself, as something intrinsically worthwhile. When it is embraced as such, it brings many kinds of benefits for individuals and for societies. However, these benefits are threatened when education is pursued merely for the sake of the benefits. In Aristotelian terms, we ought to view education as an end in itself and not just a means.

The Value of Education: Choosing Something More Than Mammon

Education should be viewed as part of enabling human happiness, by fostering curiosity, developing the intellect, and improving communication. These are all part of being a well-rounded individual. Humans thrive in situations where they can use their creative and intellectual abilities, and they crave the ability to interact positively with others. All of the humanities spur curiosity about humanity and other social groups, and they can help improve people’s abilities to communicate effectively by practicing communication. While lack of education should not be stigmatized, there is no way in which being educated is detrimental; moreover, it is not possible to be “over-educated” anymore than it is possible to be “overly well-rounded.”

The value of curiosity and of helping people flourish by using their intellectual abilities is hampered when these are subordinated to employability. The latter perspective will inevitably tend towards reducing subjects and classes to known useful areas. By definition, however, curiosity is not constrained by the useful, yet “useful” things are developed out of unrestrained exploration.4 The rigour involved in exploring areas for their own sake is best encouraged when tied first to intellectual satisfaction rather than monetary gain.

Learning requires openness to new ideas and perspectives, and as an end in itself can foster a habit of broad-mindedness and intellectual humility. If broad-mindedness becomes part of an individual’s way of thinking and approaching the world, it would also apply to his/her own daily engagement with others. Surely we want fellow citizens with whom we can have open discussions. If education is limited to what is currently known to be useful, how can it help foster openness or dialogue over more “practical” or “political” issues?

It is a truism to say that all things human are interconnected, and the study of the humanities frequently makes that apparent. Biblical Studies is an excellent example of this, involving as it does literature, theology, history, archaeology, sociology, art, etc. Skills and interests developed in one area or discipline are inevitably useful in another area. When done well, humanities education produces creative people who are able to think rigorously, are open to new ideas, and are intellectually generous. These are all things that are valuable in people and help make individuals happy and fulfilled, but they are not directly measurable in economic terms.

Moreover, a too narrow vision of education forgets the importance of human values and meaning in the forest of material causes. Humans are not satisfied by the fulfilling of physical needs alone; we need to have purpose, meaning, and intellectual satisfaction. It is largely these latter that the arts and humanities explore and question. Through the humanities and social sciences we discover how both we ourselves and others construct meaning and what they value. Biology might know how a tree adapts to the environment, but it cannot explore what it means to a human community to live with or without trees. The humanities explore such issues, and as such, they can help us as societies to explore what we really should do or should value.

If one needs another reason to support Biblical Studies, beyond being one of the humanities, it is merited in particular for its overall importance for the development of culture and politics in the world, especially in the West. As the recent focus on the King James translation highlights, Biblical Studies deals with texts that have impacted nearly every aspect of modern society, for good and ill. I have previously argued that Biblical Studies is valuable both from a secular and a religious perspective. This is true, mutatis mutandis, for Biblical Studies education. If we want a culture that is knowledgeable about its history and resources, we should want one that supports Biblical Studies and the humanities.

Lastly, I would argue that education has a similar nature to art: when it is done for its own sake, it advances dialogue and ways of viewing the world. When it is done merely as a means to something else, it can degenerate into propaganda.

Sharing the Wealth

In all likelihood, the above was preaching to the choir. The real issue is making such an argument practical. If we in the guild agree that Biblical Studies and the humanities in general are inherently valuable in themselves, then there are several things that we ought to be doing.

We need to be vocal in challenging administrators and politicians who quantify education solely in terms of fiscal and not societal benefit. We need to repeatedly and loudly object to those who claim courses of study are only worth a dollar/pound/euro amount. We need to raise awareness of the qualitative nature of education and of each discipline, even within universities.

A good way of combating discipline-myopia is for us to support liberal arts education, not only in universities and colleges, but also from elementary school onwards. The interdisciplinary and interconnected nature of the humanities (and the “hard” sciences too) is best served by people with broad interests and broad exposure to disciplines. Even though it can take slightly longer, the idea of the liberal arts can combat the instrumentalization of education (as well as to prevent educating people into career boxes).

We need to be better at making research accessible to the public without being reductionist. When nonsense is spouted in public, we need to challenge it with clearly stated information from our disciplines. We need to find ways of making it easier for that elusive “interested lay person” to go more in-depth on a topic should they wish to.

We also need to think of new ways to view and argue for the practical benefits of education without marketing them as ends in themselves. Yes, critical thinking skills are advantageous in the marketplace and successful books can make a profit, but we need to remind people that these benefits are maximized when they are not the first priority or focus. Perhaps this can be fostered by taking interdisciplinary and multi-media approaches seriously: the humanities often studies books, plays, films, and radio. Perhaps we can help the public make these connections with the academy more strongly.

Lastly, we need to have self-confidence in the value of what we academics do. Research and teaching is valuable; it is not something inferior to more “productive” or “profitable” pursuits. We need to be willing to object to caricaturizations as residents of ivory towers or to attempts to make us irrelevant to society through charges of elitism—the ideal of wide education is anything but elitist.

The above is also especially true for Biblical Scholars (or whatever cognate humanities discipline); we need to have self-confidence in what we do. Our research and teaching is not inferior in value to science or math, economics or business, just because it is harder to quantify. It is not limited to dead white men spouting dry exegesis or dogmatics. Through one particular discipline we explore the issues of human value and meaning, of human interaction and communication, using critical skills, reason, and curiosity. We study a text that has been and continues to be a major worldwide influence. Our knowledge and skills promote an educated, broad-minded, and well-rounded society. Surely, these are things our cultures can value.


1 As demonstrated by a US census report,, and is in evidence as the underlying assumption of this recent blog, The blogger’s concerns about the cost of education is another matter entirely from my point here.

2 Whereby education is subordinated to technology; e.g., this article from the Guardian:

3 Humans traditionally want to ‘save face,’ often including knowledge, e.g., P. Topham, “Feeling Stupid: A Survey of University Students’ Experience of Social Anxiety in Learning Situations” (Bristol, unpub, However, there are also frequent protests that modern society has ceased to stigmatize stupidity, e.g., Charles P. Pierce, Idiot America (New York: Doubleday, 2009).

4 Could also be compared with the pure and applied science distinction, the latter still needing the former.