Why Study the Humanities?

Most coursework in college is designed to teach our students how to make a living. They may study anatomy to be a nurse or composition for music. And these are valuable courses, to be sure. But like any course, they pertain only to limited kinds of knowledge. Anatomy is a scientific knowledge. Music composition is a technical knowledge. But, to state the obvious, life beyond college contains much more than problems of science or technique.

What the businesswoman, the musician, the nurse, the banker, and the soldier all share in common is the daily need for practical wisdom. Practical wisdom is a set of normative tools used to evaluate how one ought to live and act in the world. Those tools include:

     • the development of critical thinking skills (e.g. logic)

     • the ability to evaluate a situation from multiple viewpoints

     • the ability to abstract conclusions from complex data sets

     • the ability to appreciate horizon–broadening cultural expressions and experiences

     • the ability to discern what ought to be done (ethics), after we study what is (science)

     • the ability to thrive in a multicultural, global economy

As such, practical wisdom is the purview of the Humanities. The reason for this is simple. As we grow up, the little bit of wisdom we might gain comes from the few elders and limited experiences that chance has brought us. It’s usually not very much. But when we study the Humanities we expand upon the place we came from by confronting the noteworthy insights and actions of other people, often from other places and times. In this way, we gain a wider perspective of the world and of ourselves. We begin to recognize the complexity, diversity, and sheer wonderment of worlds far beyond the scope of our limited adolescence. 

In this way, the Humanities can give us perspective, context, and inspiration for our own lives. Along the way, hasty generalizations acquired or assumed about the world will be changed. We find new ways to appreciate that which was already meaningful. And critical thinking and problem solving skills that are simply beyond the purview of studies in science or technical craft will develop. The Humanities teach us how to make a sound judgment about a claim, a text, or an ethical dilemma. They have the power to show us a world that has been studied, excavated, and Google–mapped, but remains a source of mystery and awe.

Most career fields are already full of predictable people who can memorize data and follow directions. But it is to the insightful that the country looks for leadership. It is to the interesting that the crowds will gather. And it is the well-adjusted, not the richest or most intelligent, that find lasting happiness. A little practical wisdom can help you get there.