Why Study the Humanities?

“Twenty years from now there will be with respect to your education two crucial questions to ask yourself: first, how well did your University experience awaken in you a passion for learning? Secondly, how well did it teach you how to go on educating yourself for the rest of your life?”

— George C. Connor,  The Craft So Long to Learn

Illustration from Dante's Inferno

What are the Humanities?

The humanities traditionally encompass those disciplines that treat human culture, experience, and perception as an object of study while simultaneously treating the person as a knowing subject, and that pierce to the core of culture and the human condition.

These disciplines include the traditional liberal arts such as philosophy, music, art, literature, religion, ethics, and history; increasingly, the humanities have widened so as to include disciplines such as political science, law, archaeology, and anthropology. These disciplines, often overlooked or undervalued in the Age of Technology and Information, seek to reawaken the wonder of human accomplishment, to sharpen the intellect and to fire the imagination, and to reflect on the perennial questions of human existence: What is the nature of beauty? How does a culture define, express, or represent ultimate reality? What constitutes a just action or society? How do human beings across time and cultures understand happiness or suffering, grapple with notions of good and evil, debate political questions, or interpret and articulate the kaleidoscope of human experience in an incandescent universe? 


Why study the Humanities?

The nineteenth-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill argues that the undergraduate college ought not to be a place of “professional education.” Instead, he surmises that universities ought to be places that encourage students to become “capable and cultivated human beings.” This may sound outdated, naïve, or perhaps hopelessly idealistic to our postmodern ears, for most students entering college are groomed to pursue an avenue of specialization. But Mill objects that human beings are human beings “before they are lawyers or physicians, or merchants, or manufacturers.” Consequently, Mill reasons that “if you make them capable and sensible” human beings, a goal achieved in part through a strong humanities curriculum, then “they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers or physicians.”

But can someone be a successful and competent lawyer without studying the humanities? Yes. Can someone thrive in business or medicine without the liberal arts? Undoubtedly. But as Mortimer Adler clarifies, we ought not to confuse “the goodness of the operation” with the “goodness of the operator.” How well someone performs a specialization does not equate with how well a person understands the depths of the self, or contemplates the complexities and contradictions, or beauties and terrors, of the world around them.

Potentially, the study of the humanities cultivates that “philosophic habit of mind” of which John Henry Newman speaks—something radically different from an Internet and Information Age which values speed and instant gratification. On the contrary, the humanities typically require slow, sustained deliberation on the fundamental questions of our (or any) age.