It seems a week does not go by without reading or hearing about Humanities departments and majors shrinking or being phased out entirely at colleges and universities. Does the decline in those academic programs mean that the humanities are dying, in crisis, or already dead as some have postulated? Before answering that question, consideration of the meaning and purpose of the humanities is in order. By doing so, we can see that although humanities departments, majors, and courses inside many academic institutions are dead or on life support, the humanities outside those environments are still alive and viable.
What are the Humanities?
In any discussion on this topic, defining what is meant by the term “humanities” is a necessary starting point. The word “humanities” encompasses the study of what it is or means to be human and can be defined or expressed in various ways. That study typically involves the fields of history, philosophy, religion, art, and literature and can also include music, politics, and languages. However, that study is less about learning facts and more about critically understanding and analyzing humanity, cultures, and expressions of human creativity and worldviews through the lenses of those various academic disciplines.
Sometimes the word “humanism” is used interchangeably with “humanities” as if both have the same meaning. However, it is important to distinguish between the two. Humanism and the humanities are the same in that they both look at humanity, but they do so with different purposes, goals, and perspectives. One difference is that the humanities recognize religion as part of what it is or means to be human. Humanism, on the other hand, rejects religion. While humanism considers science and human reasoning as a be-all and end-all, the humanities, as one science professor put it, “remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves.” The humanities involve searching for Truth outside of ourselves. However, humanism sources “truth” within ourselves, which often results in an all-truth-is-relative or you-have-your-truth-and-I-have-mine mentality.
Why Study the Humanities?
Unlike courses, such as some in the sciences and technology, that are designed for preparing people for specific professions, the humanities are for everyone and “have practical applications for everyday life” not just for work or a specific profession. The humanities have an application to all people, in all places, and for all aspects of life.
To study the humanities is to wrestle with big questions: What is the meaning of life? What is the good life? How should we view ourselves and the world? The humanities address such questions not by looking at ourselves but by viewing humanity and the world both past and present through disciplines such as history, art, literature, religion, music, and philosophy. By looking at how people understood themselves and interpreted the world around them in other eras, cultures, and societies, the humanities encourage us not to judge the past but to try and objectively understand it from the viewpoint of those who lived before us and then discuss how that can apply to us and our present age. That understanding better equips us as we grapple with current issues and strive to make wise decisions for ourselves and society.
Even though academic humanities programs are dwindling, that does not mean the humanities are less important now than they were before. Nor does it mean that people do not see the value of or reap benefits from studying the humanities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a surge of interest in the humanities as evidenced by the growth of courses and discussions that occurred outside the halls of academia. Although humanities programs seem to be dying in colleges and universities, the humanities remain alive and relevant, and there are ways for the humanities to be part of students’ education. Teachers of math and science can incorporate the history of those disciplines into their courses, and some instructors are creating opportunities for people to study the humanities apart from formal education.