Why they are called the humanities

Well, the study of humans seems fairly hopeless. Doesn’t it? I mean first of all, knowing what humans are is the domain of physiology. Isn’t it? Humans are giant amoebas. Vast colonies of smaller organisms and microbes collaborating to achieve one thing—to continue. You know—to survive, to beat off competitors and to reproduce, hence to survive, etc. The current collective is only of value if it procreates; it’s the simplest of evolutionary principles. This iteration is insignificant; only replication counts.

So, what’s to study? If all we are, are self-replicating biomechanical devices, engendered by the quadrillionth roll of the carbon-based slime dice, the only thing to pin down are the genomic odds of any one of us happening. Of course we might want to study ways to make humans better at surviving the odds, sacrificing ourselves in the interest of assuring that there are children and children’s children. Logically, we should have as many children as we can produce, preferably of superior quality. Our off-spring will have to compete against all competitors for our available resources after all. Then we should bury our own future in the economic compost to contribute to the resources for our children, who must be competitive in an arena with neighbor children, so they can do the same for their more competitive children. – Oh, wait…we do that now!

Anyone who sees this existence as other than a seriously grim reality would, I believe, be someone who would neatly fit this definition, which is not humanity at all. This reality would be ours with all of our humanity stripped away, and that is not who we are. But it is all too much who we are becoming.

The study of the humanities is the study of who we have been able to become, well beyond the biomechanics of evolution. Yet, there is a close tie in the humanities to the physical human as well. The humanities appeal through our senses beyond food, fighting and sex. Free-marketeers, however, have certainly seen the economic advantage of mimicking the humanities to tap into these basic impulses, and this has not been lost on the purveyors of the humanities themselves. The arts use the visual and auditory to catch our attention and stimulate responses unnecessary for and not contributing to our continued existence, yet we come back to them over and over—Mona Lisa—Beethoven’s 5th—Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet. Literature pulls us out of our reproductive cycling by using our sensory imaginations not just as a preparation for the hunt, but being transported into an alternative existence—Morrison’s Beloved—Homer’s Ulysses. And for what? None of these assure our great-grandchildren’s fecund existence.

The humanities help us build a context for who we are, as a species, as a people, as an individual. Among the humanities, history seems to hold a unique place. All that we have been is who we have become, and this story is what history tells us. Even how our history is presented—Euripides or Doris Kearns Goodwin—informs our minds eye, human voices sounding human voices from the past.

With a foot in two boats, philosophy has, for millennia, achieved something that the sciences have not yet satisfactorily achieved—seeing outside the solidity of the mundane. It is in this contested frontera between the lands of theoretical physics (a form of math) and religious exegesis, in this transcendent reality that philosophy carries us into an existence beyond all else, genuinely room into which to move as only humans can.

The arts, literature, history and philosophy are only unimportant if our world has not humanity, if humans are competitive rather than compassionate animals, if we are self-serving rather than self-aware beings. Who we are as humans cannot be gleaned from gathering food, fighting off raiders and producing children. An amoeba does that. We must see a much broader horizon, glimpse distant, misty peaks, be stirred by the striving songs of others, and to care and wonder why. The sciences may seek the answers, while the humanities will ask the questions for which there may be no answers.

If the humanities are allowed to dim into obscurity, how will we even know what we have lost? If that which lets us be human is gone, what will it mean to be human? Yet the sad truth is that we are not choosing to shed our humanity; we are offered new clothes which will let us appear as emperors of our domains, and we are allowing that, even inviting it. In whose interest is it that we discredit the humanities and embrace the sciences? Who benefits if we don’t ask why? How will we be served by diluting the uniqueness of ourselves in the engineered seas of progress? How will we know how best to move forward? And what is the price of our wealth, after all?

About Jay C Ritterson
The only failure is the failure to try.

3 Responses to Why they are called the humanities

  1. Janet Helmberger says:

    I appreciate the “pokes” aimed at technology/science (STEM) at the cost of the humanities. While science, math, etc. are significant parts of our lives, the humanities are surely of greater value to people who think and live with broader world views. Thanks!


  2. lena says:

    I don’t disagree with the basic premise that humanities offers a unique and rich window into the complexity of the human experience…but I must say, I’m curious what the impetus was for this piece. Your caricature of the study of science (specifically human physiology) seems an overly simplified version, in my humble opinion, and fails to capture the ways in which scientific inquiry, when done well, can illuminate the human experience and how we understand our human nature.

    Loving the humanities came easily for me…I admit I don’t always feel I understand every novel I read or painting I see, but the universal impulse to ask the unanswerable questions always made sense to me. It was science, with it’s formulas and algorithms, that befuddled me. It took almost 30 years before I was willing to let go of my biases of science as a narrow-minded and rigid pursuit not nearly as interesting or creative as the humanities.

    Once I let go of that prejudice, I was surprised and delighted by how much my understanding of and love for the humanities deepened once I let go of my fear of science’s complexity and rules and just delved in. A few great teachers, not unlike yourself, guided me along the way, and now I wish I had not been so afraid of the challenge that scientific inquiry imposed early on.

    Through my studies of geology and biology I have gained a deeper context for the richness of humanity’s experience and narratives…perhaps it is not surprising that I was so excited by geography as an undergrad. It’s the blend of science and humanities–both the science and art of how humans interact with space, place, and each other.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that in an ideal world, the science and humanities should not be pitted against one another, but rather inform each other for the benefit of future generations. Sadly, one only need look at the state of funding for the arts and humanities to see this is not the case. However, I stand by my argument that one without the other is useless.


  3. lena says:

    P.S. One (or two) more thoughts: the introductory study of geology also offers little of practical use for the lay individual…and yet, ten years later, Geology 101 still remains one of my all-time favorite classes from college. It’s not because I learned a lot of useful things about mineralogy that I call upon in my everyday life, but because it opened my eyes to another way of looking at the world and my place in it. Isn’t that what we should aspire to in both science and the humanities? For me, science isn’t always about finding the answers, it also about finding the next questions to ask.


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