Embracing the Humanities

04/19/2012 09:26 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2012

My school is a math and science powerhouse. We consistently win national math and science competitions, send handfuls of kids to MIT and CalTech, and, this year, we were even honored as the Intel Science School of Distinction for our scientific excellence. At the school-wide assembly celebrating this distinction, the principal offered her perfunctory congratulation to the rest of us on a successful year, worried about alienating those who didn't focus on math or science.

Though succinct, her one-sentence congratulation spoke volumes about the attitude that my school and the educational system as a whole hold toward the humanities. In this exaltation of scientific excellence, where do those of us who do not conduct scientific experiments, pore over university-level math, and research cures for cancer stand? My school's newspaper and yearbook have both won multiple Pacemaker Awards and students have published their work in renowned publications such as the Concord Review, yet none of these accomplishments were ever as widely praised as the accomplishments of our scientific peers. Compared to the prestige we assign to math and science awards, our achievements seem insignificant.

This is because society today is measured in facts, figures, and profits. With their use of numbers and statistics, math and science have successfully established themselves as manifestations of these three criteria, a feat that boosts these domains' status in the public's mind. Despite the fact that critical thinking and public speaking patently foster communication skills necessary for the real world, we still insist on the superiority of math and science, arguing that they are the fields that ultimately stimulate economic profitability and efficiency. Although the general consensus remains that being well-rounded in both the humanities and the sciences is advantageous, when it comes down to the zero-sum game of financial support, the sciences always prevail. Math and sciences' political neutrality has allowed both politicians and educators to support the two subjects without controversy or reprisal, an opportunity that politicians have grasped and exploited as they pour more and more government money into funding them. As a result, the math and sciences thrive with a wide selection of different grants and opportunities, while the humanities struggle to survive.

Although it exists for financial and political reasons, this bias toward math and sciences also reveals a much deeper, psychological issue we have with the humanities. The humanities deal almost exclusively with our inner selves -- with individual emotions, thoughts, and fears. Critical pieces of literature and articles on humanity all compel us to reflect on our own identity and reality, forcing us to search inside us to answer the questions posed -- questions that often do not have one correct response.

Math and science present us with no such moral qualms or doubts. Unlike the humanities, they solely address the physical universe and focus on creating new technological innovations. New York Times writer Dennis Overbye once stated that nowadays, the math and sciences are so uncontroversial that "Nobody [is] sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant."

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the humanities. Because the answers to the dilemmas they propose cannot easily be reduced to black and white or right and wrong, the humanities espouse discussions and opinions that are inherently controversial. They are meant to invoke thought, inspire change, and address the most pressing social problems of the day -- aims that often arouse the wrath of governments and oppressive regimes.

We are wary of the humanities because they oblige us to take a stance on controversial issues and to be able to properly defend our beliefs. Even more so, the humanities force us to question fundamental assumptions about our basic human nature. When I read the New York Times bestseller, The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, mass serial killer H.H. Holmes possessed such striking similarities to renowned architect Daniel Burnham (down to his piercing blue eyes), that the distinctions between good and evil that the two forces they supposedly represent became blurred and indistinct. When I read about these opposing forces in juxtaposition, I realized the vagueness of terms like good and evil, which invoked my speculations about what they entailed and whether or not the same "devil" that Holmes purported to live within him actually lurked inside every one of us. By instilling uncertainties like these into the human mind, the humanities make us question ourselves, something we are averse to doing.

But the humanities accomplish something that the math and sciences can never hope to achieve. They require us to cultivate opinions on a variety of subjects and to voice our opinions in a public medium, thus compelling us to better comprehend who we are and what we believe. They are the main forces in shaping our true identity and perspectives. Furthermore, they allow us to see the world through another's lens or mindset, uniting what was once a cluster of isolated minds into a community of intellectual, inspired individuals.

As the name suggests, the humanities are what make us more human.

In order to embrace our genuine identity, we first must embrace the humanities. Though we still have a long way to go towards achieving this goal, we should not lose our drive or abandon hope. To initiate real change on a shorter scale, we need to introduce more literary classes in schools, promote occupations that the humanities encompass, and simply discuss literary or social questions in our everyday lives. Over the long term, we ought to learn to appreciate the beauty of the literary work and the spoken word, and we ought to accept that not all things in life have concrete answers. By doing so, we will not only be able to redeem the humanities in the eyes of the public, but we will also be able to truly understand what defines who we are.