02/06/2011 06:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What the Heck Is a "Humanity"?

Just what is a "humanity?"

Obviously, it must be something. After all, there is an entire national endowment -- the imaginatively entitled National Endowment for the Humanities, or NEH -- set aside for it and its ilk. That's the same NEH that currently finds its federal funding at risk in the ongoing budget debate.

At this point, you might suspect where I'm heading... but you'd be wrong. My purpose in putting pen to ink today is not to argue for or against the humanities or for or against their federal funding. After all, we live in a guns or butter kind of world. Tough decisions have to be made -- and we all have to live with the consequences.

Instead, I will simply stick to my earlier question. Just what is a humanity? Or, to phrase it more artfully, what are the humanities?

For what it is worth, I will share my own definition with you. The humanities are those fields of study that explain and celebrate what it means to be human and, in doing so, enrich and enhance our lives. Think of the fields of literature, history, the classics, jurisprudence, theatre and art history, film studies, languages, philosophy, and ethics, to name a few.

I admit that my definition encompasses a lot of territory. It certainly lacks a sense of immediacy and urgency. At times, it probably even invites ridicule. At least it did at West Point in my younger and thinner days.

Back then, my fellow cadets and I were grouped into two academic tracks. Although all cadets labored through a punishing core curriculum (where else, for example, is a history major required to take electrical engineering?), cadets were either MSE (math, science, and engineering) or HPA (humanities and public affairs). I selected the HPA track, which was disparagingly called "House Plants and Animals" by the slide rule-wielding cadets of the MSE track.

To some extent, I can see their point. After all, wasn't it engineers and scientists that, for example, raced the world to build the Panama Canal and raced death to find a vaccine for polio? It wasn't poets, authors, artists, or history professors. Rather, it was hard-nosed men like George Goethals and Jonas Salk, trained and skilled in engineering, science, and medicine.

But where, one wonders, did men like Goethals and Salk find their moments of inspiration for their scientific and engineering goals, their struggles, and their triumphs? I do not know, but maybe they found such inspiration in a book, a poem, a painting, or even a philosophical conversation. Maybe it was a moment in that field of study that we call the humanities that, perhaps only subconsciously, inspired and steeled their souls for the challenges to come.

If I am correct in this regard, then the humanities are more than simply a field of study that requires definition. Rather, the humanities are as much a catalyst as a conclusion, as much an impetus as an accomplishment, and as much a means as an end.

The challenge we now seem to face, therefore, is appraising the value of such things in raw dollars and cents. And in that particular endeavor, I wish us all the best. The stakes might be higher than we think.

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