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On Studying the Humanities: What Does it Mean to Be Human?

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It's a given. Every time I tell someone that I'm an Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities at Waldorf College, they ask "So what do you teach?"

Most of the time, the questioner wants to know the practical answer: I teach Writing, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, and German. But occasionally people want an answer to a deeper question: What is (or are) the humanities?

The humanities include the stories people tell, the art and music they make, the buildings they live and work in... and the list could go on. It's about finding answers to this question: What does being human mean?

First some etymology. The word humanity comes to English from the Latin humanitas, which first shows up with the writer Cicero. He used it to describe good people, that is to say "civilized" human beings. It entered English usage in the 14th century.

The main definition of the singular form -- humanity -- refers to being "humane" and is synonymous with civilized and well-educated. Humane people recognize and practice concepts like "hospitality" and "justice" even if precise definitions might vary in different times and places. The word also refers to a collective -- the human race.

Used in the plural -- humanities -- it usually becomes "the humanities" or a field of study within university settings, a group of "subjects" scholars study, discuss and debate including history, music, art, languages, philosophy, religion, and literature. The humanities have been part of the curriculum since the very beginning of universities.

Makes perfect sense, right, this definition of the subject I teach? No? Perhaps if I say a bit more.

When we study the humanities we study people, only not psychologically or biologically (although those fields do come into it from time to time). Mainly we're learning about how people in earlier ages or faraway places created the world they lived in, and how the world they lived in made them the people they were. And while studying the many different subjects contained with the humanities, we inevitably end up learning about more than simply past or distant cultures. We end up learning how we create the world we live in now, and how the world we live in makes us the kind of people we are.

The humanities are at the core of a Liberal Arts education because they are about understanding how people are active creators of culture, not just passive recipients of tradition. We choose to do many things with our lives -- career, spirituality, music, art -- and those choices shape who we become.

The longer I go on and on about the humanities, and trust me, I can go on and on, the more often someone says this: That's all very nice, but what can students do with a BA in the humanities after graduating?

Parents and students have legitimate practical concerns. Will graduates get jobs with decent incomes? Will they be happy and successful? Will they ever move out of their parents' basement and into a place of their own?

Here is my standard answer: With degrees in the humanities, students can head in just about any direction, from law to business to politics to parenting and homemaking. As students analyze the various artifacts presented to them in history, literature or religion classes, they learn how to think critically, solve problems, and see issues from a variety of perspectives. Plus, they learn how to speak and write with conviction. Ninety percent of employers list those skills as the ones they look for in future employees.

So it's hard to come up with a career or vocation in which those skills aren't important; building a career after studying the humanities depends more on a student's ambition than on anything else, something that is true for anybody heading into the world of work. What do students want to do? College degrees and career offices can help, but students have to create a tangible path that turns their dreams into their success.

Looking past questions about earning potential, however, the windows on the human experience opened by the humanities reveal many different kinds of people and ways of thinking about life, the universe and everything. I think they teach us how to be humane -- how to be good people -- wherever we live and whatever we do.