Parents and siblings are sometimes a bit baffled when their student declares a passionate interest in the humanities. Why can't she pursue a practical degree like accounting or computer science? What is the use of a dozen courses in the humanities? More basically, what are the humanities?
The humanities are the fields in which we study the meaningful ways that human beings express themselves -- literature, philosophy, art, music, poetry -- and the modes of commentary and interpretation we have developed to discuss those modalities. Humanist scholars concentrate their attention on explicating the complexities, contexts, and meanings of cultural works. So literary criticism gives us theories and language in terms of which to understand literary expressions; art history and criticism provides such frameworks for the visual and sculptural arts; and so forth.
Traditions of literary and creative work exist everywhere in the world and throughout history, and most would agree they add great value to human life and culture. In fact, we might say that the fields of the humanities constitute the greater part of what we mean by "culture" -- systems of values, meanings, and metaphors in terms of which we live our lives. Who has not had the experience of reading a great novel or poem or hearing an opera or a theatrical performance and being profoundly changed as a result? (Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf stands out in this way from my own college experience.)
Much of what I've mentioned here has nothing to do with universities. Academics sometimes produce great literature and art; but so do Bruce Springsteen, Leo Tolstoy, and George Eliot. So culture and the academic world are distinct. Academics theorize about cultural products, but the culture creators can be found everywhere.
So what is the value of studying the humanities in universities? How does the study of humanities become practical in an undergraduate's education? The answer is simple. To navigate our world -- to be successful as a leader and a contributor to the range of cooperative activities of professional life, to function as an intelligent and compassionate citizen -- there are a number of intellectual and emotional skills we need to have. These skills don't emerge spontaneously any more than does the skill of taking a turbine apart. Study of the range of the humanities makes a major contribution to the young person's development in these areas. So what are some of those skills?
First, we need to be able to recognize the complexities of the social relationships that surround us in society and in the workplace. We need an open mind that recognizes nuance and ambiguity, and we need to be able to sort out these complexities and make sense of them in order to act appropriately. We need social intelligence, and literature and the arts help to cultivate it.
Second, we need to be able to analyze and reason about complicated social situations. Why do people behave as they do? What is the relation between the public script and the hidden transcript? How do sincerity and deception intermingle in ordinary human affairs? What are the passions that move people to heroism and tragedy? Literature helps develop these skills through the novelist's ability to capture a complex, fluid set of social relationships.
Third, we need to be able to empathize with other people. We need to be able to recognize that their experiences are different from ours, and their wants and needs deserve attention. But to understand another person's experience we need to have developed the intellectual and emotional skills that permit us to recognize the nuances of that experience. It is only by learning to join imaginatively in the lives and values of other people that we can gain a meaningful capacity for empathy. The experience of literature and the arts helps greatly to cultivate strong understanding of the complex lives of others.
Finally, the analytical skills of humanist scholars who study cultural products are themselves an important component of critical thinking. A great teacher of literature or art is able to lead the student to ask new questions, to probe the intentions and choices of the artist, and to attempt to uncover hidden assumptions and values. Follow T. J. Clark through his analysis of the French Impressionists and you will never again think that these are just pretty pictures (see The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers).
So the study of the humanities is actually of great practical importance. It helps students gain the intellectual and emotional skills they need to understand the human realities they engage with, and it helps them gain the empathy they will need be good parents, good friends, and good citizens.