Why We Need The Humanities
by Terry Heick
The world is swirling in winds of digital code.
The humanities provide a kind of embedded moral code that force us to confront our own habits, trends, and notions of recreation. In an age of shifts and fluidity, this is definitely a ‘thing.’ Within the immense gravity of Google, Apple, and data mobility, the shift away from the humanities is accelerating. According to the New York Times, Stanford University has 45% of its staff in its Humanities department, but only 15% of its students. At Harvard, there has been a 20% decline in humanities majors in the last ten years and the Washington Post reported in October of 2019 that overall, English degrees…
That’s a lot. Who cares?
If literature provides a kind of shared framework for what people are “for” and how we might act and what we should tend towards or resist, it is not a huge leap to believe that without humanities, we are then redefining what it means to be human in the absence of the kind of sustained, millenia-long reflection the humanities represent.
This should make us at the very least uncomfortable.
The Stories That Linger
Let’s define the humanities as “the study of ourselves through our collective human expression.” In education, these expressions—what makes each one of us unique, expressive, and capable of giving and receiving love are curiously gathered under a single content area or, at best, department—Humanities. Practices here include literature, art, design, music, and philosophy—activities that elevate our lives beyond mere survival.
It’s easy to spot right away, however, that the ‘non-humanities’—science, technology, engineering, and math—also have roles to play in the humanities. We don’t stop being human because we test theories or require data or perform calculations, nor are these “industries” any less human than writing poetry or composing music.
The humanities then, provide extraordinarily diverse modeling of human trials, failures, humility, and triumph. Ezra Pound’s “Literature is news that stays news” is a useful line. Out of the billions of episodes of published media, the things that linger—for whatever reason—tend to be useful, like a trail of bread crumbs back to ourselves.
Humanities as a term has become opaque and abstract, which can be seen in how casually we treat it in education (see the Common Core Standards). The artificial categorizing of the universe into narrow sects of knowledge (narrowed further by standards) is partly to blame here, which is another article altogether. For now, let’s define the role of the humanities.
What should they ‘do’?
What Should The Humanities Do?
In a digital age of connectivity, data, and access, at first glance the purpose is not much different than it has ever been. More than anything else, the humanities provide for us with a shared moral and cultural memory.
Mark Twain provides an archetype for the wildness of childhood, while leaving a picture of slavery and the moral impossibilities it brought with it.
Flannery O’Connor’s work to make sense of Southern American ‘traditions,’ or Shakespeare’s struggle with the overlapping consequences of action and inaction act as a kind of echo, or endlessly looping gif animation that acts as a cautionary tale. Closely studied, these ‘memories’ can lead to self-knowledge and inform morality and ethics while promoting affection, faith in one another, and compassion.
What is worth understanding?
What should I accept, what should I question, and what should I resist?
What system of ethics do I use, where does it come from, and how does it change?
What are ‘people for’?
What should I ‘do’ and where and with whom should I do it?
In short, we learn what it means to be human. Is this not even more immediate and useful in an era where every digital discovery is an ‘opportunity’ for substance or distraction? When students are too quick to Google without fully understanding what exactly they’re looking for and why?
Mitigating The Thoughtless Ambition Of Technology
As a system preoccupied with endless assessment, data, utility, research, and ‘career readiness,’ Education has become incapable of using abstraction to understand. Death of a Salesman, The Scream, Oedipus, King Lear, Chopin, et. al, all provide models of morality, rebellion, self-criticism, and propriety, but these ideas are all package in forms and structures very different than those many students read and use themselves on a daily basis.
Students accustomed to actuating learning through YouTube channels and learning simulations and apps may naturally resist the ‘dwell-time’ necessary to distill the patterns embedded in the humanities. And even those students naturally interested or disciplined enough to try will often hear these pursuits discredited by those asking if such knowledge will lead to ‘a job,’ missing the fact that it should illuminate the kind of work and jobs worth having.
In modern education systems, we are more interested in helping students process endless streams of often useless data—which seems practical until we measure that practicality by what it fails to do—i.e., help a student understand their own citizenships, legacies, gifts, and opportunities for meaningful actions and relationships in their own community. Education trains students to be better at education.
The humanities are interested in what is uniquely possible in each one of us, suggesting the work we might do, and the place we might do it in. How one can be ready for a career without being able to answer these kinds of questions isn’t clear.
The ultimate distinction here then is one of affection and needs. Technology needs the humanities more than the reverse is true. By bridling technology’s thoughtless ambition, the humanities can let us prove—to ourselves—that we are not confused about what we are slowly becoming.
Humanities Not As Content, But A Sequence
Another way to contextualize this age of information is as an age preceding one of wisdom or true community. Information has always existed. It now comes oddly packaged and fragmented–briefly in tweets or tags, or search results 46 pages long. This means it’s always out of context. Properly applied humanities, then, provides that context. They can make information whole again, causing impatient would-be Googler’s to extend their thinking just a bit more.
To refine their questions.
To search for people and communities and primary source documents rather than the misleading and superficial distillations that Google all too often retrieves because it’s just a search algorithm and it doesn’t ‘know’ anything.
In part, this is why students should read.
Mastering technology requires us to know what we need, the kinds of questions we should ask, the kind of work we are called to do, and the demands placed on us simply by being alive. This is why we need to teach the humanities. The humanities are not simply colors and sounds and stories and dances and ethical frameworks, nor are they self-indulgent reflection; rather, they represent our documented collective expression over thousands of years! Here is who we are and what we’ve done and the mistakes that we’ve made and what we value in a hundred different forms and languages and patterns! What a miracle!
In an increasingly urgent and immediate and even illusory digital world, the humanities will show us where we’re going if we’re willing to read them as something other than ‘stories,’ and teach them as something other than ‘classes’ and ‘content areas.’ These ‘stories’ are artful and often troubling demonstrations of who we are by framing where we’ve been, every single time paralleling the trouble we’ve already seen and pain we’ve already felt. Nothing new ever happens. You want to see the future? Let’s trace our collective arc.
How might wearable technology might impact our identity and affections? What could mobile devices do to our physical interdependence? What does it mean to know or understand something? Want to see the thin, blurry line between modern medicine and bio-engineering? Wonder what a culture seized by apathy or fear looks like? This what literature, music, art, and other forms of human expression can help us understand.
The humanities precede technology just as you and I must always precede the tools we create.
Adapted image attribution flickr user nickamostcato and brioso; Redefining What It Means To Be Human In The Absence Of The Humanities