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Why the Humanities Still Matter

“The basic purpose of a liberal arts education is to liberate the human being to exercise his or her potential to the fullest.” – Barbara M. White

A humanities education was originally intended as a liberation of the soul. Of course, that means that there is such a thing as a soul, you and I are souls, and we actually believe that we are ensouled beings. But given the recent gutting of the humanities, you might think that there is a growing tendency to deny both the fact that we are ensouled beings and that the humanities actually matter. Humanities studies include the subjects of history, grammar, philosophy, rhetoric, English literature, and, traditionally, it included music.

Yet there is a growing concern around the humanities. One concern is that the humanities have so thinned out that they have lost any practical effectiveness in our universities and have rather been replaced by other ideological trends in higher-ed, namely critical theory, social justice, gender theory, and discussions on identity politics. Another concern and one that deserves the garden-share of your reflection here is that it just isn’t all that practical. If you want to get a job, then don’t study one of the humanities disciplines, rather study something practical. This is where STEM has, in many respects, replaced the humanities. If you want to land a job, then study something like engineering, science, medicine, or even business management.

The solutions advanced can be categorized in three ways. The first is that we should largely abandon the humanities in higher-ed because they are no longer useful. The second set of positions argues that there is still some value in the humanities, but that we need to continue seeking for the middle ground between a humanities training and the more practical vocational training. The third is a kind of retrieval of what has been lost in modern higher-education not by abandoning the humanities, but by renewing them. By providing a well-rounded humanities education of old in English literature, grammar, philosophy, history, and religious studies, we can alleviate the first concern and, by so doing, ensure that the liberal arts really are quite practical.

Areas in which the humanities improve a well-rounded education

A humanities education furnishes a well-rounded education because it aids in the process of integrating all knowledge so that one might become a thoughtful, productive citizen in society. The problem isn’t with the humanities, as some contend, but with the fact that the humanities (traditionally conceived) aren’t being taught. The solution then is to provide a beefed-up humanities education in both secondary education and the early years of college. By doing this, young men and women can gain the skills to communicate well, develop internal stability that is long-lasting, and learn to enjoy the good things in life that are sustaining.

Who killed the humanities?

The problem isn’t with the humanities. For most of the history of higher-education, the traditional university included a rounded and robust humanities education that has and continues to serve civilization by instilling long-tested values, ideas, and principles that shape and sustain the heritage of which we are the beneficiaries. Instead of abandoning humanities or attempting to salvage what we presently have, we must realize what it is that we lost and who killed it. The reason the humanities have lost their salt, as it were, is not anything to do with what it has been historically; instead, it is due to them becoming something else entirely. It is a hollow shell of what it once was. This is due to the fact that the humanities have become a political agenda of our modern fixation with identity politics and no longer an education tested by western civilization for the sake of preserving the collective wisdom of those men and women that precede us.

Why it is important?

1. It complements the structure of good thinking—namely Logic.

Logic arguably provides the structure and principles for thoughtful, ordered thinking. Yet, Logic is part of a larger set of subjects and disciplines that mutually reinforce one another. A well-rounded humanities educator realizes this. The humanities provide the content to the well-ordered and logical mind. Think of it as the personal flesh on the logical bones of a human being. Both are needed and serve the purposes of a well-rounded human being.

2. It provides the content to the structure of good thinking.

In addition to having a well-structured mind that we attain through the use of philosophy, language, and, especially Logic, the humanities give content to the structure of good thinking. It is important to note that having structure is insufficient for a well-structured mind. That mind needs content. Considering the skeletal structure of a human being might suffice to illustrate this. The skeletal structure is necessary and provides the human with stability, soundness for movement, and the right sort of arrangement for the other parts of the body to hang. Yet, a skeleton is insufficient for the whole human being. The human being needs muscles that hang on the bones, so to speak, in order to move. The skeleton also needs organs, the central nervous system, and, especially the brain in order to function properly. Well-structured thinking, too, needs good ideas, assumptions, and direction in order to think well about the world. This is clear when we consider what else the humanities offer.

3. It grants you a lens into the successes of the past

That the humanities give us a lens into the past is especially important for good, well-rounded thinking. And, the humanities provide that lens when we consider history, English literature, biography, and great pieces of western literature. History grants us knowledge into the success of nations, leaders, and tribes. Biography grants us access to the particular lives, narratives, and choices of individuals and shows us what worked for them and what brought about turmoil. Western Literature as well gives us a lens into a distinct kind of knowledge.

4. It grants you second-personal knowledge.

One gains first-person knowledge through what is directly accessible through introspection or through observation of the world around. One gains third-person knowledge through empirical investigation that draws from the scientific method when we consider biology, agriculture, and anatomy. Yet, there is a different kind of knowledge that has recently been discussed in the psychological, cognitive science, and philosophical literature—what some call second-personal knowledge. Second-personal knowledge is that kind of knowledge that individuals do not have direct access to, but they have indirect access through others and their experiences and perspectives of the world. Stories, especially great stories, give one this kind of access that would otherwise be difficult to gain. We can gain some awareness of what it might have been like to be a King and confront the decisions common to Kings through the great book, Beowulf. We can also gain knowledge of different ways of approaching romance (one through the lens of custom and the other through the lens of passion) in the great book, Sense and Sensibility.

5. It introduces and complements one’s knowledge of the soft skills.

Related to second-personal knowledge is the knowledge of soft skills. Soft skills are those skills gained through personal interactions. Soft skills include the ability to communicate well, professionally depending on the environment, and the ability to work with differing personality types. Literature provides a lens here as well. By simulating real-life experiences, or life-like experiences, we are able to prepare for real-life encounters and consider how we might respond prior to the encounter.

For all the reasons listed above and more, a humanities education matters to the development and grooming of young men and women. For it is through a humanities education that students become acquainted with values and ideals, and they are able to acquire virtue by learning from the successes and failures of those who have preceded. If you are convinced that a humanities education still matters, then you might consider for yourself or your children the notable colleges that provide a quality humanities education.

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