Why We Study Humanities

While I was studying during my final semester of college this winter, a teacher posed an interesting essay question that was the focus of our final paper for the class. We had talked on and off in class (Modern Literature, Theory and Criticism-I’m an English major) about the problems affecting the Humanities departments in schools, particularly university settings. We were talking about this in the midst of the tuition protests in England and a college in New York having cut its whole language repertoire. It’s scary to think about, but that kind of mindset towards the Humanities is spreading like wildfire, and it might not be long before things like history, literature, language, music, religion, women’s and minorities studies are pitched out to make room for “better” disciplines like science and math.

This is totally not to say that there is no merit in studying sciences and maths. That would be a ridiculous statement. What I’m arguing is that it’s equally as ridiculous to think that we could get rid of the human disciplines.  But it’s so hard to stand up for Humanities, because it’s difficult to put our fingers on just one thing and say “Look, this right here is what we do for the world.” The work that we do in these departments is often subtle and takes many years to permeate society. On the other hand, sometimes the effect is fairly swift. Think about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Common Sense, and other books and articles that have prompted more or less immediate historical impact. And more than anything, I think that the Humanities have truly taken to heart the importance of inter-departmental studies. Just look at your local university’s CLA class list and you’ll be amazed at the things you can study that could belong to four different departments.

In literature and literary criticism in particular, there is the option to converse with authors who have come before you. If you look at something like the post colonial movement you can see that social change lies in authors looking at the novels that have come before, and seeing who and what has been left out in that point of view. Then they change it by writing their own novel that poses something different, and new classics become part of the curriculum for millions of students.

Now, people may argue here that the writing of books has nothing to do with the study of books, which is a wrong assumption. Many authors study creative writing in school, as well as artists studying art and dancers studying dance.

I think that Humanities also have the same ability to study the universal as well as the individual, just like the sciences. We question why the canon stays the way it is, why people keep coming back to the same ideas over and over. What resonates in these stories in people for centuries, and what does that say about us? We also look at the peculiarities of individual cultures, and individuals in each culture. We study ideas from, languages and literature from around the world.

And, I’m sorry, in this rapidly shrinking world, who really thinks that understanding other languages isn’t worth it? Really?

Anyway, this is just a small portion of the discussion we had in class (the views here were expressed by others as well as myself). Basically, I hope we can stand up to whatever the money-gobbling people of the world have in store for the Humanities.


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