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Why Study the Humanities?

There is a wise old African proverb which says, "Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters."  One may well ask: what have lions and hunters to do with the study of the humanities?  A great deal as it turns out.  We humans are the only creatures who study the past.  The proverb addresses the inescapable importance of transmission of the past for human society.  We reflect on the past.  We record it.  We interpret it.  We revise it.  We learn from it.  We lie about it.  We live in the past in the present.  We are our pasts.  But why is the past so crucial for humans?  Why can't we be like the lion and ignore it?  We might live in a simpler world.

Let me ask you to imagine your life if you were unaware of your mortality.  The lion does not know that death is inevitable.  How would you live if you did not know you would die?  Would you have a past?  Would you know your mother's name or even that of your children?  Would you even know that you should care about such matters?  You know those things because of your memory of your past.  Yet, we cannot ignore the past because we are primarily meaning makers – nature's oddly eccentric sentient beings.  As rational creatures we live and die by the meaning we assign to things.  History is the remembered product of that assignation of meaning.  We extract meaning from our consciousness and shaping of that past and employ that meaning to understand our present.

The study of the humanities is the study of meaning in all its manifold representations whether that is in a great painting, an epic poem, a passage from scripture, a lost presidential letter, a remembered slight, or a moral truth.  Yet, too often the humanities are represented only as disciplines, an array of special academic tools, which can lead the initiate to a more complete life.  Of course, the humanities do include such disciplines – and make no mistake they are important -- and they may even achieve that end.  But the humanities are far more.

Imagine for a moment if we had no history, no access to our past.  Imagine a society with social amnesia?  The past as a blank slate.  Imagine an America with no memory of its revolutionary past, its history of slavery, its place in WW II, its landing on the moon, its civil rights struggle.  Such societies have existed, exist and will continue to exist. Stalinism repressed and feared memory.  It sought to destroy Russia's past, to rewrite the past, to construct ambitious lies about the past.  Individual memory was dangerous.  Individuals were dangerous.  Art, music, poetry and religion that did not serve the aims of the state were proscribed.  They could not and did not exist.  Galileo was silenced.  The great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam died in a labor camp.  The Nazis' condemned modern art as "degenerate" and burned it and books by the truckload.  The great German poet Heinrich Heine, whose work the Nazis also burned, wrote presciently in his 1820-1821 play Almansor, the prophetic warning, "Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen" / "Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people."  The Nazis murdered the great French historian Marc Bloch for his resistance to such policies.  Knowledge of one's history is a powerful force in creating a sentient human being; repressive regimes have always known this and feared and abhorred such knowledge.

The humanities offer freedom.  They promote thought, protect integrity, and enshrine liberty.  How do they promote such cherished values?  Through connecting us to our past -- to the great monuments that have forged civilization.  But how do these artifacts do so?  How does Sappho's lyrics, Rodin's bronze of the Burghers of Calais, Barber's Adagio for Strings, Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace, Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations or, for that matter, a passage from some sacred scripture keep us free, nurture integrity, promote critical thinking, self-reliance and guard us from social amnesia?  This is a difficult question.  My answer begins with the idea that the humanities tell us little but show us much. Such showing initiates dialogue as we confront these great works.  Although dialogue is typically understood as being between individuals not things, this dialogue with the creative outpouring of the past guides us on a journey into the depths of our understanding.  The showing stimulates an inward turn away from the image, the sound, and the page.  But what do we turn towards?  We turn inward away from the object to our psyche, our spirit, if you will permit the expression, "our soul" guided always by the dialogue.  We then confront cognitively and with our full affect the dialogic experience with the full repertoire of what we have acquired in life.  The richer our educational experience the greater our capacity to engage creatively in the dialogue.

Our response is not only intellectual. It is now well established that such moments also change us physiologically.  Music and human language reassemble our frontal cortex – that crucial area of the brain, which controls reading and interpretative skills.  We are changed soulfully and physically through this dialogue.  Such dialogue and subsequent introspection, if sufficiently intense and filtered through education, brings us into moments of exquisite self-awareness where we glimpse our true relationship with the world.  The more we are exposed to the traditional subjects in the humanities the richer will be our understanding of this dialogue and our experience of life.  Yes, if we study the humanities, we will be better critical thinkers, better writers, more apt not to misunderstand history, but most importantly we will live fuller, richer lives.

By Thomas J Heffernan, November 2015

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