What exactly is “the Humanities?” The Humanities resist definition. In short, we can say that after the social and human sciences, linguistics, and the hard sciences have been stripped away from what once was considered “general education” and became their own disciplines, the Humanities became what was left of that “general education.” Essentially, it is a trash can where the little pieces parts of all these other disciplines that didn’t get included in those disciplines or creative and non-scientific ways of thinking about those disciplines winds up.
In 1980, The United States Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities described the Humanities in its report, The Humanities in American Life. According to the authors of this report, “Through the Humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human?” This question is the focal point of the Humanities. What makes this question difficult to answer from this liberal arts perspective is that the Humanities offers clues to the answer to this question, but the answer itself is never complete. While the other disciplines can devise ways to produce quantitative evidence to explain the phenomena they study, the Humanities, for the most part, must rely on more qualitative explanations. The Humanities reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of the world in which we humans live and they strive to do this in spite of the fact that “irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope, and reason.”
While, for the most part, the Humanities is not a quantitative discipline, the specific subjects within the Humanities do study more specific things in more specific ways. For example, philosophy is about metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. The discipline of history is about what humanity has done – our collective family history or collective human story. Literature is about what humans have written, how those texts were received in human society, and how well those texts reflect the human society in which they are written. Essentially, there is one common thread to all of these sub-categories of the Humanities – the focal point of each of these disciplines is humanity – it is about different ways of seeing ourselves and one another.
“Why should I study the Humanities?” is a common question that many people ask in contemporary society. We have a skewed idea of what education is supposed to be. Education is supposed to help us get a job, perform a specific task, or to equip us to live in the world around us. There is a very powerful scene in the film Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams tells the students that business and commerce are necessary in order for us to sustain our way of life, but the Humanities is necessary in order for us to go on living. We must ask ourselves, “Is our whole purpose in life nothing more than to get a job and earn money?” The job that education will bring us and the money that comes along with that job is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. Learning about the Humanities enables us to set aside “the means to an end” for a little while and focus on “the end in itself.”
Training in the Humanities helps us to define and to develop the qualities which make us human. It stresses that training in the arts, literature, drama, dance, philosophy, and history is essential in order for us to learn how to live life to its fullest. This is not ancillary to a meaningful and happy life but is instead its very source.
Although the Humanities is difficult to define and even more difficult to categorize, we can say that the Humanities focuses on three major ideas. First, the Humanities helps to develop cultural knowledge – it acquaints students with works of art from their own and other cultures. In addition, the Humanities helps to develop perceptual skills – it teaches students to appreciate these works of art and communicate that appreciation in meaningful written discourse. Finally, the Humanities helps students with creative production – it encourages students to express their creative and aesthetic impulses through disciplined training in one or more of the sub-categories within the Humanities.