Why the humanities?
What are the humanities and why do they matter?
The humanities include disciplines such as history, literature, philosophy, and religious studies; they feature prominently in interdisciplinary departments such as African and African American Studies, Indigenous Studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; they also have much in common with the arts and social sciences.
These disciplines help us to understand who we are, what it means to be human, how we relate to others, and the pathways that have led us to this point in time. We cannot navigate our way through the present into the future without a balanced understanding of our diverse, complicated, and often problematic pasts. Appreciating what it means to be human, how relationships work, and how perspectives on these questions vary from culture to culture – these are crucial to our present and future. The humanities take us there.
In a rapidly transforming world and workplace, we need more than ever to nurture critical thinking and the capacity for problem-solving. As a growing number of employers are pointing out, specific skills become increasingly ephemeral in an ever-changing workplace; what they need are employees who can analyze carefully, think creatively, and express themselves clearly, skills fostered by the humanities. Those skills are and will be crucial ingredients for professional success in the bracing twenty-first century workplace. The humanities take us there.
Literacy and critical thinking also play a crucial role in the democratic process, which depends on a citizenry prepared to engage actively and thoughtfully with current events, committed to creative and innovative solutions instead of blind deference to tradition and authority, and watchful of our hard-won freedoms. The humanities take us there.
Every day we witness the many ways in which the world around us becomes ever more interconnected and yet remains deeply divided. The humanities help nurture connections within and between diverse societies, offering pathways for constructive engagement. Learning about and respecting outlooks different from our own is crucial to our survival in the twenty-first century, moving us away from tensions created by ignorance and fear toward informed, sympathetic conversation between cultures. That does not mean forsaking our own identities and loyalties, but it does involve developing the capacity to see beyond them. The humanities take us there.
The expansion of humanistic inquiry in recent decades to recover the voices and past lives of people who have been either ignored or systematically removed from historical narratives and literary canons fits closely with broader trends in our culture toward greater inclusion and a recognition of diverse voices and histories. We are an indispensable part of that process as we seek to understand the many constituent parts that together make up the complex world we inhabit. The humanities take us there.
The humanities are not an optional and unaffordable luxury, as some critics would have us believe. What we do as humanities scholars and in our classrooms could not be more relevant to the world we live in; nor could they be more practical in terms of the skills we need as twenty-first-century citizens. The humanities are a necessity – and not only from a utilitarian perspective. We cannot surrender to a vision of the future that fixates on a narrow economic conception of what is productive and useful. What about our responsibility to nurture our individual capacity for creativity and artistic expression? These are also crucial measurements of our worth, success, and wealth as human beings. We should never undervalue the personal fulfillment and happiness that we can draw from literature, art, music, theater, philosophy, religious studies, and history. An appreciation of our diverse cultural legacies enriches our lives, individually and collectively, and the same is true of becoming actively involved as participants in the creation of new cultural forms. As a growing body of research demonstrates, cultural vitality and personal happiness ultimately lead to economic growth. The humanities take us there.
Please join the quest to support, create, and disseminate new ideas that open our minds, reveal new ways of understanding who we are, and uncover the histories that brought us to the moment we now live in!
(By Richard Godbeer, former director of the Hall Center for the Humanities)
The Hall Center, one of 11 designated research centers that fall under the auspices of the University of Kansas Office of Research, provides an intellectual hub for scholars in the humanities and fosters interdisciplinary conversation across the University of Kansas. Through its public programming, the Hall Center makes visible the significance and relevance of humanities research, engaging broad, diverse communities across the state in dialogue about compelling local, national, and global issues that humanities research addresses. The Hall Center acts on the conviction that the humanities must play a critical role in constructing a humane future for our world.