Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t… Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own. – Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)
With so much emphasis on technology and science in recent years, it is no surprise that studying humanities has been deemed less important by some. This is apparent in universities as funding is more readily available for postgraduates in disciplines such as engineering and biochemistry compared to the humanities. At undergraduate levels, it is not uncommon for people to throw snide comments about the uselessness of humanities degrees either. It can indeed be hard to argue with this when there are those studying medicine or desperately researching cures for cancer. At school the sentiment was similar, I remember my classmates would complain about having to read books and theories. In history lessons, it was not uncommon for myself and others to ponder why we were learning about the past.
In modern day life, less and less people are reading books. I don’t need a statistic to prove this either, it is quite evident all around us. With the rise of technology, there has also been an enormous rise in media that keeps us occupied and entertained. Why bother reading a book when we can swipe through Facebook, play an irritatingly addictive game or watch Game of Thrones. Just look at the recent meteoric rise of Pokémon Go! At times when we could be reading a book, for instance, on a train or before bed, we have found other means to entertain ourselves.
With all these distractions and arguably more pressing matters in both life and education, humanities is in danger of becoming redundant and this is something that should be considered a major cause for concern. Humanities has so much to offer people, including leaders, CEOs of business and even those scientists and engineers whose jobs seem to have little need for the humanities.
Firstly, it is probably worth tackling exactly what ‘humanities’ entails. Stanford Humanities Center describes humanities as ‘the study of how people process and document the human experience’. Humanities covers an array of topics; these include subjects such as languages, literature, history, philosophy and music. Thus, when considering what ‘studying humanities’ means, it is the act of critically examining and researching how people have documented their lives and historical events during their lives.
However, we should not take this definition of studying humanities to mean spending time hunched over a desk for hours on end, critically examining the different meanings one can reap from two slightly different copies of a Shakespeare play. Nor does it mean that we have to approach historical texts from contrasting Marxist and economic perspectives. Whilst complicated, in depth research has it value and uses in the higher ends of academia, it has little use to the majority of people. In opposition to this understanding of studying humanities, I argue that simply reading books, historical texts and learning different languages is studying humanities. Going to a museum and observing artefacts of previous civilizations is also studying humanities. In essence, the simple act of reading a book and making your own opinion on it is an act of studying humanities – you don’t need a classroom or a degree to do it.
If we accept this understanding of studying humanities, then what exactly can we label the benefits of such studying? One answer to this question comes down to understanding. We can understand others and the different views they hold. Furthermore, by repeatedly understanding other views through the humanities we can cultivate and improve upon the act of understanding itself. For example, reading autobiographical accounts of war gives us a historical insight into that person’s life; similarly, novels of fiction describe another person’s view point. Learning different languages acts as the immediate bridge that allows us to ask questions about other cultures. Moreover, the study of ancient languages can reveal and uncover facts about previous civilizations.
It can be argued that understanding and the ability to understand may not have many benefits in themselves, however, it is the effects that this understanding brings. If we are better able to understand different people’s viewpoints, it can actually affect a better, harmonious world. Don’t tout this as some ‘hippy theory’, I believe it is very true. Confusion and misunderstanding of different individuals and ways of life can lead people to be defensive or on guard. This type of reaction usually brings about aggression or bad feeling. In opposition to this, understanding how other people lived, live or wish to live can bring about support or acceptance.
There is another aspect to this understanding that is worth mentioning. It can be argued that the studying of ancient Greece or Rome is a pointless task as they are in the past now. However, with the same logic, we could argue that we should cease to learn about our immediate history as well. Think about the implications of not learning about the wars, genocides or nuclear attacks in recent years. Studying history and understanding other people’s experiences provides the evidence we need to learn from our mistakes. Understanding viewpoints and history does not need to apply only to governments and leaders in this sense either. A young man reading a novel that informs him of the struggles of depression can bring about compassion and understanding in a friend or a stranger who is in similar circumstances. In a sense, humanities can make people more moral and cause them to make better-informed decisions.
Finally, the ability to make better-informed decisions has great benefits itself. When studying literature in education you are obliged to write essays outlining arguments and different opinions. This causes you to research, elaborate and evaluate on the various different understandings of a topic. Doing this repetitively improves a person’s ability to create an argument based on informed decisions. Moreover, in the heat of an argument it improves the likelihood of someone being able to listen and engage with another viewpoint. This type of studying in humanities is not limited to those in education, merely reading a novel or opinion and liking or disliking it affects one’s ability to argue and think well. This is not only good for the person themselves, but for communities and societies as well. If everyone were better equip to argue effectively, deliberately and perceptively, better decisions would be reached quicker.
This is not an exhaustive lists of reasons why humanities and studying humanities is very valuable to people and society, but it is a start. We should not be intimidated by the phrase ‘studying humanities’, simply reading books or learning a phrase in foreign language counts as actively studying humanities. The benefits such studying can bring are worth your time and effort. If you agree or disagree, feel free to comment, I am curious to find out your opinions on this subject!