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Oh! The Humanities!

So here’s the thing:

I enjoy learning of all kinds. Like many people, I naturally focus more of my time and attention on things that are of interest to me – writing; medieval warfare; organic gardening; the poetry of Edmund Spenser; girls who look like they fell off a mudflap, et hoc genus omne. That said, I also believe that there are certain things every person who seeks to acquire a true education should learn if they want to give their intellect the proper workout to develop into something of substance and heft; one must explore not only the areas of one’s interest, but also the areas of lesser interest, no interest, and active loathing as well to achieve the appropriately broad view of history, society, and humanity. This is an idea at odds with the current pro-tech, anti-art, anti-humanities movement that says “We are a nation of technicians and businesspeople; financial and material gain are the hallmarks of our success, and in the pursuit of these things, we have neither the time nor interest necessary to explore the “artsy-fartsy” or the abstractly intellectual.”

We live in a world of technology; a world that demands a greater degree of technological sophistication and finesse than any since our ancestors knocking around Olduvai Gorge decided to ask themselves what would happen if they hit the flaky rock with the poundy one. As a result of these demands, recent decades have seen the development of a movement within American culture that emphasizes technical acumen and skills in the arenas of math, science and business over the more “fuzzy” disciplines of art, music and literature. This movement argues that, in order to be both competitive and effective in global society, one must focus the bulk of one’s time mastering the hard, data-driven fields sired by math and “pure” science. Increasingly, corporations control the world, and therefore (goes the argument) one must tailor one’s skill set to meet the needs of this oligarchy so as to serve optimally in one’s role as a cog within the monstrous machinery of international commerce. There is virtue only in knowledge that enables us to further our position, our wealth, or our control over resources; anything else is considered an entertaining diversion at best and a resource-wasting hindrance at worst. Those who choose to pursue the “soft” sciences of philosophy, art, literature or dance are considered lazy elitists who contribute nothing of value to society beyond the occasional evening’s entertainment or high-minded “gobbledegook” that has no bearing on the world of commerce and technology.

I humbly submit that I am neither a cog nor a waster of time and resources, but a human being. As a human being, I am, when the trappings of employment, education, family and social circumstance are stripped away, left with only one thing: my humanity.

And I find that to be the very furthest thing away from “optional” or “ephemeral.”

In his book Time Enough for Love, Robert Heinlein’s irascible humanist and seemingly-immortal bon vivant Lazarus Long describes the obligations of a human being thusly:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Let us consider the last line of that quote: “Specialization is for insects.” Humans, like insects, are social creatures. Also like insects, we form hierarchies and dole out responsibilities and duties as both ability and circumstance dictate. However, unlike insects we do not emerge from the egg (or, more properly, the womb) hard-wired for a specific service or task. We are not forever tied by our genetics or physiognomy to a particular job that we must complete, day-in and day-out until health fails and life is extinguished. If, in the years beyond our birth, we find ourselves chained to anything, it may be safely assumed that such chains are forged with links of societal, cultural or mental/physical limitations, rather than genetic predisposition. Our kinship with our brethren in the entomological realm is a testament to our wondrous adaptability – and it is the sacrifice of this adaptability in the service of material gain or social advancement that endangers us not only as individuals, but as a species. Just as the shark who stops swimming will expire, so too will the human who surrenders their ability to question, to adapt, to solve problems independent of some arbitrarily assigned functionality within the schema of commercial interest. We are not born insects, so specialized that we are incapable of functioning outside our assigned role (or, worse yet, unable even to contemplate such a deviation), but we may become like them if we allow ourselves to train our minds toward obedience and away from thought and inquiry.

Enter the Humanities. Within their realm, the student is exposed not only to the origins of their own culture, but the origins of their species. They will scour away the layered dust of millenia and see the earth through the eyes of peoples who, although long dead, still reach forward in time to lay a finger on the hearts of those walking the same well-worn paths across the wide world. They will, if the Universe is kind and they apply themselves diligently, gain perspective. They may learn to see that humans have struggled with the same basic problems – shelter, food, safety, status, love – since they left the trees behind and stood erect to stare into the bowl of Heaven.

That is the ultimate gift of a Humanities program – perspective. And what a powerful gift it is! Sympathy makes for a lovely greeting card, but empathy – being able to say to a friend…a loved one…a competitor…a foe…that you can see their side of the story in any circumstance – is essential if one wishes to live rather than merely exist. A person whose education includes the Humanities is prepared for a variety of circumstances, because they have come to understand that although the world changes, the core of humanity does not. They understand the power of balance in elevating us, bringing forth the angel out of the ape. They have learned that, as a species, we don’t really hold onto the hardest-won lessons. Such a person takes ownership of their soul and is unafraid of inquiry, dissent, discourse or – perhaps the most fearful thing of all to those who cherish docile obedience over empowered agency – thought. Thinkers are dangerous – they ask questions. They tell the truth. They rock the boat, usually while brandishing an oar.

Yes, thinkers are dangerous. But they’re human, and not content to settle for life in the apiary.

As I write this, Humanities programs across the USA are in danger of being slashed or even eliminated by schools which, in their desire to serve the demands of the market, have chosen to emphasize business, technology and science. I can’t say that I blame them; after all, it can be difficult to run a school without money. That said, such a solution is both woefully short-sighted and ultimately dangerous to both the American culture and the human race. One does not strengthen the body by working only one side of it; one does not fully engage the mind by developing only select aspects of it.

So what’s the solution? Well, to borrow a phrase from our friends on Madison Avenue: “VOLUME, VOLUME, VOLUME.” The same schools finding themselves forced to cut Humanities classes due to “lack of demand” could generate that demand if they engage the market. There needs to be a more robust campaign afoot, one that rivals the “science and technology” gang, if there is to be an increase in the number of students seeking the wisdom Humanities programs provide. There needs to be volume of another sort – as in greater decibels as well as dollars – in establishing the Humanities as essential to the core of ANY good education, whether one is seeking to become a neurosurgeon or a nanny. The Humanities are not “competition” to the “hard sciences,” but their complement. They are the dark, savory yang to the sterile white yin of science and mathematics; they are not separate, but intrinsically and inexorably bound together.

It’s about balance.

It’s also important to involve the students currently involved in Humanities programs. For example, my friend Amelia and I have created a Facebook page about the Humanities program at our school. We’re also looking at redesigning our school’s ho-hum promotional literature to better engage and enthrall would-be Humanities scholars.

In the end, there is only one thing that binds us together, regardless of social station, race, ethnicity or nationality, and that’s our shared humanity. We can (and do) choose to pretend this bond doesn’t exist, or we can embrace it and, in our efforts to understand our history, come to understand each other.

Sure beats sucking pollen all day, don’t you think?

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  1. One of the things I really appreciated about the University of Wyoming was the University Studies Program – everyone has to take math, fine arts, social science, “hard” science, writing, etc. It only adds up to about 30-40 credit hours altogether, but ensures that nobody gets to focus entirely on science (or, for that matter, on art).

  2. @Chia See, that’s great. I love that approach, because it acknowledges the fundamental necessity of balance. Too much or too little of anything can have a negative impact when it comes to education; my main goal in drafting this post was to underscore the importance of complete education. Clearly, as someone who’s experienced its benefits first hand, I’d say you’re a strong example of its power. Thank you for reading and sharing your experience, my friend. 😀

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