“The humanities are “disciplines [that] concern the study of distinctively human actions and works; for example history, philology (language, literature, linguistics), philosophy, theology and studies of Antiquity” (Gregory, 2009, para. 3). Now, this definition is completely true and well said, but it fails to account for the “why” of humanities; that is, the purpose behind studying it. The title of the book which that definition came from, The Dictionary of Human Geography, is highly relevant to what the humanities truly are because the term “Human Geography” captures in it the ideas of our ancient, forever-building history as a species as well as the idea that the marks of the past can be seen present in our society today- not the society of a country, but the society of humankind. This overarching idea of “society” and everything it can tell us is at the core of what I believe are the Humanities. The word “society” is broader than the word “country” and more significant than “group of people”. It holds historical weight, but more importantly, emotional weight. To begin to understand the study of humanities in (and for) our society, we need to first understand the value of empathy. To me, empathy in society is the central answer to our “why humanities” statement.
Humanities has a historical focus more than anything else- though it does not typically include the memorization of dates or names as in other history classes. This is because we study history not to gain simple flashcard information, but to draw a more well-rounded and empathetic perspective on what has built our society- the good and bad. Building empathy often involves a historical background or a pattern of stories to reach a conclusion about the oppressive treatment of a person, people or an idea- this requires the humanities. Understanding pain without context is nearly impossible, so to perceive the pain that still exists in society, we have to know where it comes from. For this reason, we have focused on genocide and oppression in the humanies in many different contexts, paying attention to how pain is recorded by onlookers and how it is expressed by victims. We have discussed Sara Baartman, the Rwandan Genocide, and the modern-day school-to-prison pipeline system. And yet this form of study is only one type that falls under the greater umbrella of humanities; just as learning about pain in society does not tell you everything there is to know about what our society is. However, learning about pain and how to perceive pain is both the responsibility of any member of society and a stepping stone to better empathy for others. Understanding pain allows us an understanding of our differences as well as an understanding of how we are connected.
The humanities can mean more than a simple bridge between history and empathy, however. As we learned in Dr. Robb’s unit, the humanities involve learning about truth, bias, and perception. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, there is the clear metaphor illustrating the idea that none of us may have a true perception of the world- and that even if we were offered the truth, many of us would most likely fight against it. Our study of truth continued with examples of bias in the media and in history as well as the effect types of bias have on our culture and stereotypes. “The Danger of a Single Story” Ted Talk best illustrated how leaving out sides of a story influences the view of an entire people. The recognition of bias in society can tell us a lot about ourselves and broaden our perspective past what we have been told by our culture or even our history textbook. Studies on truth and bias add to the true definition of humanities, but do not complete the definition; they are necessary, but not sufficient. However, they provide a better lens through which we can view history- and a better lens through which we can understand society. Once again, the humanities and society are inextricably tied; you cannot talk about humanities without, in part, talking about society.
Self expression is the last fundamental part to understanding the humanities. Art is hard to define and hard to describe as it is constantly changing and in thousands of forms. However, this is self-evident of the constant change within our society as art is a symptom of our growth and change as humans. Through watching plays and movies, we learned that art is a method of communication that holds power and can incite change if used the right way. Society requires self-expression to continue changing and evolving, as art is used to shed light on issues and ideas those in power- or sometimes, those writing the history books- are not paying attention to. Put as broadly as possible, humanities is studying society for the purpose of learning from it and improving it. Therefore, what falls in and out of the definition is constantly changing, just as society is constantly altering what it deems relevant, and therefore things that history deems irrelevant to our own evolution and growth will also be deemed irrelevant to the studies of humanities. That being said, almost all forms of science, though not touched in course material, play a significant part in shaping society at one point or another. It is not the study of biology, therefore, that is a study of humanities, but rather the intersection that biology has made in the way we have created our society; the moments where science altered the way we interacted, communicated, and expressed ourselves. Similarly, we don’t study any kind of economics in humanities, but it is helpful to know the basics of certain economy types and economic trends to understand the cycle of poverty and how it has impacted our stereotypes of the poor. Anatomy is not a part of humanities, though it is very human, however, the way studies on anatomy have impacted racial bias and oppression certainly is important to our understanding of modern society.
Gregory, Derek; Johnston, Ron; Pratt, Geraldine; Watts, Michael; Whatmore, Sarah. The Dictionary of Human Geography. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Robb, David. “On Definitions”. https://hum.davidson.edu/on-definitions-by-prof-robb/. Accessed December 12, 2020.