One idea that requires immediate emphasis is the importance of the humanities in general. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama said: “Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math—the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.” While that statement presents a laudable goal, it also totally ignores the value of the humanities. In fact, at a time when we see an increasing dehumanization in society, a greater focus on economics, more reliance on technology, and ever more attachment to material goods, the humanities are increasingly vital to our individual and collective wellbeing. The humanities can help us learn how to manage, how to use properly, those skills that the President emphasized.
Now let me correct the oversimplifications of that last paragraph. A focus on the economy is not evil, so long as the economy is used to better people’s lives. Technology is certainly not evil. I owe my life to technological advances. But less dramatically, technology also allows me to communicate with my children, who have chosen to live four hundred miles distant. And the humanities surely do not have an unblemished record. One of my favorite poets, Edmund Spenser, played a shameful role in the Elizabethan suppression of Ireland. T.S. Eliot, like so many others, was anti-Semitic; and the Nazis and the Soviets both manipulated the humanities to further their enterprises. So it is not enough to say that we need to study the humanities. We also need to study how to study the humanities, which is itself, paradoxically, part of the humanities. If we simply make the humanities into another example of unthinking, rote learning, then we transform them into a means of oppression rather than liberation.
The humanities, after all, are among the things that make us human. The concept of the humanities presents a number of problems, which are evident in our vague notion of what we mean by the term. Too often we simply equate the concept with the related but historically quite distinct terms “humanitarian” and “humane,” and we tend to think of a humanist as someone who has certain humane qualities. Actually the term “humanities” comes from the Latin studia humanitatis, a phrase that we might translate as “a liberal education.” Because few of us can agree on the meaning of “a liberal education,” however, that definition is of little help, though the early connection between the notion of the humanities and an educational system is significant.
For the modern world, the idea of the humanities was revived in the Renaissance, and although there is considerable dispute over what the word meant to the Renaissance humanists, we can say some definite things about it. For example, we know that it was again used to refer primarily to an educational system, in this case a system that developed largely as a reaction to late medieval scholasticism and that emphasized the study of classical Latin and, to a lesser extent, Greek literature. Significantly, an overwhelming majority of Renaissance humanists were educators (most of the rest were statesmen), and consequently they conveyed their program not only through their numerous books pamphlets, but also through their students.
Yet the idealism of the Renaissance humanists, their concern with human affairs and the higher aspirations of humanity, did little to keep the Renaissance from being a brutal age, and in fact led, by a rather complex process, to the excesses of the Reformation, the Counterreformation, and the Inquisition. Even so, one of the leading humanist ideas focused on the dignity of humanity, the notion that humans can be either bestial or angelic, but that they have a duty to opt for the latter. Thus, the ideas and ideals of the humanists were good, but the overall program failed. With relatively few exceptions, Renaissance humanism did little to make human beings better, despite a lasting influence on education, which continued to emphasize the Greek and Latin classics until the twentieth century. At the same time, precisely because it was an ideal, it was bound to fail: ideals are things we strive toward, not necessarily things we accomplish. It is the striving that makes us better.
Today we might think that the humanities consist of all those fields of study and activities that teach us what it means to be human; in ways both bad and good. The humanities present us with numerous alternatives for behavior and the basis for choosing among them. This, of course, is hardly a new idea; and it may be appropriate at this point to quote Sir Philip Sidney, who says in his “Apolologie for Poetrie,” the following: “this purifying of wit, this enritching of memory, enabling of judgment, and enlarging of conceyt, which commonly we call learning…[its] final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate soules…can be capable of…so that, the ending end of all earthly learning being virtuous action, those skilles that most serve to bring forth that have a most just title to be Princes over all the rest” (160-61). This equation of knowledge with virtuous action, which goes back to Socrates, is central to my belief in the value of the humanities; and I should add here that I include religion as one of the humanities. By making us aware of alternative forms of action and by giving us a basis for choosing among them, the humanities should make us more truly human in the best sense of the word. The humanities, then, take advantage of our ability to dance, to sing, to sculpt, to draw or paint, and to use language in order to show us both what we have been, what we are, and what we can be. And I cannot stress this point enough: the humanities have a dimension of enjoyment.