Have you ever been asked what the Humanities are good for? [View all]
Last edited Tue May 31, 2016, 03:31 PM - Edit history (7)
Why do we even need them anymore, since lucrative pursuits such as Tech and Finance are hyped as all-important, while the study of Language, Religion, Music, Art, Philosophy, Literature, and History is portrayed as outdated or elitist, perhaps to justify cutting public funding?
I invite you to imagine someone living with cultural amnesia. This is a person who understands little of her communitys past. She doesnt have much access to her own ancestors notions of their identities, or how their life habits or patterns of thought changed over time. Likewise, the values, ideas, and events that shaped the nation in which she lives are mostly unknown to her.
Shes never been taught to examine her native language or use it expressively in school, much less how to communicate with groups whose languages are different than her own. She lacks formal practice in reason and eloquence. She knows little of global religions. She has never benefitted from the opportunity to reflect deeply on her fears, her sense of justice, or to listen widely to other people's stories for their experiential, emotional content. She hasnt been introduced to books or other documents that could enrich her interpretation of how she, and others, came to be in the present moment.
No one has shown her how to select artistic models for inspiration or critique, so she hasnt developed a range of aesthetic appreciation for architecture, visual art, music, or dance, and doesnt have enthusiasm for those kinds of creativity. She doesnt write to describe her experiences or to enjoy the challenge of imagining alternative scenarios.
In fact, she has never considered that she could be seeing reality through a distorted and partial lens because she hasn't been encouraged to ask herself why she thinks the ways she does or acts according to certain values. All she has learned of how representations of the world can change from different ethnic, racial, gendered, ideological, or otherwise socially stratified perspectives has been picked up by chance, or from commercial or private interestsnot provided by schools, museums, libraries, or sponsored cultural events.
Because of her lack of education in the Humanities there is a lot she cant do. She cant draw on past wisdom because she doesnt know how to access the rich trove of cultural artifacts invented by human beings over the centuries, or how to analyze them. She is denied the satisfaction of recognizing the beauty (and sometimes horror) of this inheritance. She doesnt seek out the unfamiliar. Reaching out to people beyond her circle is also uncomfortable because shes not well prepared. And, since she only recalls her familys and her own personal struggles, she is unaware of how their stories relate to broader circumstances and other people or even why that knowledge might be important. Since she is unaccustomed to speculating about the reasons behind her beliefs, she cannot rigorously justify her own ethics or evaluate their implications. Discussing qualitative abstractions like kindness and humor is hard for her too, so she's not practiced in empathy towards others or empowered to improve relationships between groups.
Ultimately, she isnt capable of envisioning a future that is better than the present as she currently perceives it, nor does she possess the skills to exercise power for the benefit of her community. Cut off from major portions of the legacy of human experience and expression, she is vulnerable to adopting the decisions of powerful and influential people without question. She is isolated, yet lacks autonomy.
The study of the humanitiesLanguage, Religion, Music, Art, Philosophy, Literature, and Historybreathes life into material things and imbues our relationships with meaning. These disciplines are the worlds basis for recovering and transmitting the record of human experience to successive generations of people. Along with the Sciences, they are at the historical roots of the modern university. But, in distinction to scientific methods, humanities methods of interpretation raise questions that often dont have absolute answers. They provide us with logical ways to evaluate patterns of ideas and values, to perceive and analyze trends across time, and to shape reality, that are not easily quantifiable or open to experiment. They are the heart of our collective memory.
Humans have long used the Humanities to document and to refine human perception and behavior. We have used them to inform our judgments, our theories, and to fight for necessary change in our shared social structures and places. We need diversity of thought to solve our problems. Their study produces people capable of communicating across all kinds of borders and envisioning possibilities for a common future. A Humanities education not only satisfies our ancestral intuition that valuing financial gain above all else will not lead us to sustainable happiness. The study of the Humanities is a public trust, crucial to community life, which aspires to educate the whole person and citizen for the benefit of the collective. It is a vital part of an education designed to prepare us to be the 'guardians of our own liberty'.