Telling the truth about the humanities

When last year’s interim Dean of Humanities, Lynn Cohick, stepped down to pursue the provost position at another institution, Dr. Jeffry C. Davis admitted that he did not immediately consider the possibility of taking her place. Davis revealed he was hesitant at first as just last year he had taken on a new role as chair of the English department along with his current position as the director of interdisciplinary studies and his duties as an English professor.

“The question in my mind was whether or not this was the right time to even think about a new position,” Davis told the Record. He went on to say that, after discussing it with his wife, Ruth Davis, and mentors, “they thought it was something that I should approach with open hands [toward] God, and so I did.”

Davis, who has been on faculty at Wheaton since 1990, is known around campus and among his colleagues as not only a lover of English literature and the humanities but also as a strong advocate for the liberal arts.

“I think we need someone with a strong vision for the humanities, and I think that Dr. Davis has a long track record of thinking through the Christian liberal arts in really deep, interesting, important ways,” Associate Professor of English Dr. Christine Colón said to the Record.

When asked about what inspired him to take on any one of his many roles, Davis launched into an oral love letter to the Christian liberal arts. “The pursuit of truth is central to the liberal arts, and it’s central to the Christian faith … but at the heart of liberal arts is a pursuit of what it means to be free as a human being. How does someone truly live freely? And I believe you can’t answer that question without the gospel,” he said. “[The integrated power of gospel and truth is] the most exciting aspect of being a teacher at Wheaton.”

Davis is not the only one looking forward to this new chapter. In a phone interview, Associate Professor of English and Director of First Year Writing, Dr. James Beitler, expressed excitement for Davis’s vision. “I think he’s just going to be a great advocate for the humanities, and the liberal arts as well … he really wants to have conversations about how we can move forward as a division in ways that showcase what we’re doing really well. I think it’s going to be a great thing for us.” Colón agreed with Beitler, emphasizing, “He is really committed to helping the division think through what the humanities have to offer beyond the simplistic idea that we teach people critical thinking.”

With regards to his own vision for the humanities program, one of Davis’ main goals is to foster an environment in which “the different departments that represent the humanities have more face time and more opportunity to collaborate meaningfully, to promote the important work that we already do.”

Throughout his conversation with the Record, Davis constantly referenced his devotion to collaboration with others and said he could not be making this transition, which began in August, without the help and support of those around him.

In addition to what Davis called “meaningful collaboration,” two other main themes consistently came up when discussing his mission: advocacy and imagination.

“The humanities are vital to the mission of Wheaton College,” he said. “We serve Jesus through the liberal arts, in the formation of whole, Christian students so that they can serve the church and bring benefit to society. That is a distinctly human activity.”

In order to serve as God intended by connecting honestly and intentionally with those around us, even when they may be different from what we are used to, Davis emphasizes imagination as a crucial component. “We have to be able to use our imagination to consider what it is to be somebody in the world who needs something that we might be able to humbly offer. Not as one with ultimate solutions, but maybe as a single contribution,” Davis said.

His emphasis on imagination is not lost on his colleagues. “I love the way he thinks about the power of imagination … to enter into the lives of people in literature and not just leave it there, but how that [imagination] can transform us and transform the ways that we think about living our lives as Christians,” Colón told the Record.

Despite his vigor for the subject, Davis maintained that not enough people know about the practical applications for life that the humanities offer. “What I want to do is tell the truth about humanities. According to one source, a significant number of CEOs in the United States have a background in humanities.”

Davis leaned forward in his chair and continued, “Whether it be in business or government or in the church, the humanities [are] a great preparation for leadership, and that’s borne out in all sorts of studies … we’re not telling this story enough.”

Coming from a “business family” with both his parents owning their own businesses and all five of his siblings having created and owned their own businesses as well, Davis expressed great respect for business studies.

Nonetheless, what he wants prospective students and their parents to know is that the study of humanities should not be discounted when thinking about future employment. His colleagues within the English department agree.

“There are always reports about the humanities and the liberal arts declining in importance and concerns about students’ ability or success after graduation to land a job … it’s just not true,” Beitler told the Record.

“One of the things Dr. Davis will do really well is to spotlight that reality to our students,” he said. Davis is considering “a humanities cohort,” which he explained as an environment where students interested in humanities can get together to read, write about and engage with important texts in order to let the students take ownership of their learning and responsibility of the conversation.

Almost as much as he enjoys discussing the humanities, Davis delights in asking questions about them. One of the “great questions” he likes to ask with respect to studying humanities is: “Are you the kind of person that you want to be? Or do you need to grow?” If the answer is the latter, he says, “the humanities are essential to that growth.”

Davis reached for a simple modern lamp on his desk as he explained that the humanities are about reaching for the things that are great but difficult to grasp. “It’s easy to grasp things that are close. Some people fill their lives and their shelves with easy trophies, but the humanities ask us to reach for things that are noble, true and beautiful.”

He went on to say that “when we reach for those things, we don’t possess them, but in our reaching we become more human.”

It is plain to see that Davis is a wealth of intellect and wisdom, and when asked if he had any advice for freshmen considering the humanities, he answered with seven words of counsel: “Take holy risks and test your faith.”

He referred to the tendency of today’s culture to promote striving for security and safe bets, and the inconsistency of this message with biblical messages of faith.

“All the great biblical characters didn’t live with absolute security,” Davis said, “they didn’t have a safe bet, they didn’t choose something that was easy or secure. I think we really need to live out of our convictions when we live out our educational philosophy.”

Davis grew up in a non-Christian home. He came to his faith just before going to college. “I chose Wheaton much to my parents’ disappointment as they wanted me to study at the state university, but as somebody who was being called to something bigger and greater than I could even understand at the time, I knew I had to be faithful to that prompting by attending this college,” he said.

Davis graduated from Wheaton in 1983 with a B.A. in English Literature. He went on to receive an M.A. from Northern Illinois University and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in Chicago, both in English.

He now urges his students to participate in what he calls “holy risk-taking.” He explained it as moments where “we come before God and we say, ‘Lord, fearfully and wonderfully you made me. How do you want me to live with my college education?’ knowing that to whom much is given, much is expected.” Above all, Davis wants students — especially freshmen — to enter into college life and education with an open mind.

“I loved science in high school, all science. [I] didn’t love the humanities … but when God got ahold of my heart, He showed me things about myself that I didn’t know myself.” Davis’s final bit of advice?

“Don’t think you have it all figured out. If you do, you might be surprised one day.”

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