Why study humanities?

Lately there’s been a lot of encouragement for students to study STEM field, which, while important, has contributed to a pretty sizable decline in the number of people studying liberal arts, at least in America. This NYT article by Jennifer Schuessler reports that we are in “a time when the humanities and social sciences are themselves often accused of being frivolous at best, fraudulent at worst.”

After four years of a humanities curriculum at a small, liberal arts college, I can confidently say that I would choose this course of study for myself all over again. It probably isn’t the ideal path for all students, but I still think there’s so much value in courses that may not be immediately pertinent to a future career.

We shouldn't let the humanities die, even if some of the greatest influences have... Image: Wikipedia
We shouldn’t let the humanities die, even if some of the greatest influences have…
Image: Wikipedia

I really liked a few quotes from this article by John Horgan about why he teaches humanities to students at a technological institute:

In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism…

The humanities are more about questions than answers…

If I do my job, by the end of this course you’ll question all authorities, including me. You’ll question what you’ve been told about the nature of reality, about the purpose of life, about what it mean to be a good person. Because that, for me, is the point of the humanities: they keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty.

Said another way, humanities make us human. Horgan’s quotes hit a little closer to home for me than just defending humanities, because I think they also sum up why I’ve chosen to pursue cog sci.  It’s full of uncertainty, doubt, and skepticism. For every question we address (I think using the word “answer” would be false advertisement), many more arise. This way, we’ll never run out of questions. In order to address them, we pull from a number of domains that may not even seem to be related at first glance. And by doing this, we probably won’t run out of novel ways to view the questions we entertain. I think this is incredibly important if we want to better understand the mind (and I don’t think this is too unique a desire). Maybe it’s satisfactory to be told something like: when you eat chocolate, your “pleasure center” lights up, but to me, we still have a long way to go, and STEM alone won’t get us there.

2 thoughts on “Why study humanities?

  1. Great post! The whole “humanities are more about questions than answers” idea makes us, I think, better thinkers and analyzers; after all, why should we take anything at its face value without probing further? That would be a rather boring existence. I, too, would repeat my humanities curriculum, and feel well-prepared for law school next year given what I studied in college.

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