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Practically Human

Leland Ryken

Practically Human: College Professors Speak from the Heart of Humanities Education, edited by Gary Schmidt and Matthew Walhout. Grand Rapids: Calvin College Press, 2012, 171 pages, $12.00.

The moment I opened this book and saw the table of contents I felt an adrenaline surge. It was obvious that the book belongs to the same genre as a Festschrift that twenty-five of my Wheaton College colleagues authored on the occasion of my retirement in the spring of 2012. That genre is a book of essays written by professors at the same college commending the value of their respective disciplines and academic passions to college students. The goal is to make a Christian liberal arts education be all that it can be for students, and in fact to make the Christian public see a liberal arts education as sufficiently valuable as a foundation for life that it becomes the preferred choice.

The first stroke of genius is the book's title. Practically Human plays off the common cliché about something being “practically” something, with the word practically carrying the force of “nearly” or “almost.” In this case, “practically” reverses that connotation and means “having practical usefulness.” This is a double comment about the book. On the one hand, the authors make the case for the humanities being practical and useful. But it is also a comment on the envisioned audience for the book. In a preface entitled “About this Book,” the editors delineate a broad range of potential readers, including college students, parents, guidance counselors of youth groups and high schools, and high school teachers.

The word human in the main title signals that the focus of the book is the academic disciplines that have traditionally been known as the humanities. The subtitle tells us that the authors have written as experts immersed in their respective disciplines, but also that they have written “from the heart,” that is, about their respective intellectual and professional passions.

The context for the book is highlighted in the editors’ introduction. That context is our culture's obsession with utilitarian goals for education and anxiety about whether a liberal arts education is likely to lead to a satisfying career. From start to finish, this book has an apologetic slant as the authors make a case for the importance of the humanities in its constituent disciplines. This apologetic slant lends a nice unity to the book and validates the thesis that the humanities are useful, partly because they are humanizing.

Nothing delights me more as an academician than to see one or two professors mobilize members of their own faculty to produce a book of essays that showcases the intellectual excellence of their college. Part of my gratification stems from the excitement that I sense about the communal nature of an academic community. But I am also gratified to see how projects like this one elicit the best from the contributors. Everything in Practically Human is well thought out, aptly stated, and marshaled in a persuasive direction. I cannot imagine the topics being handled more expertly than they are in this anthology of essays. In keeping with the practical aim of the book and the envisioned audience, the essays are eminently readable.

The academic disciplines that receive their defense in this book are as follows: philosophy, music, history, art, literature, writing, rhetorical studies (speech), foreign languages, classics (ancient texts), and biblical studies. I was gratified to see that the book is dedicated to Calvin College literature professor Clarence Walhout, my contemporary with whom I enjoyed interactions early in my career and with whom I once co-edited a book.

Leland Ryken is professor of English at Wheaton College, where he has taught for forty-three years. He has had a publishing career as well as a teaching career. His three dozen books cover a broad range of subjects, including the Puritans, the Bible as literature, and Bible translation. He is the author of The Legacy of the King James Bible (Crossway, 2011). Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2013.

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