Oh, the Humanities! Belittled. Beleaguered. Besieged. Over the past few years, there has been a very public debate played out in numerous publications about what role, if any, the Humanities should play in academia. Questioning the value, monetary and otherwise, of majoring in English, Philosophy or Art History has become part of our nation’s political discourse. (Et tu, President Obama?) Colleges and universities are working to try and re-brand themselves as institutions where students will learn skills without having to “waste time” on subjects that don’t have anything to do with their majors; very often, those “unnecessary” subjects are in the Humanities.
As a poet and as a faculty member in the English Department at a small, liberal arts college in Brooklyn, I have watched this ongoing debate with both personal and professional interest. As someone who majored in English as an undergraduate, I have first-hand knowledge of how valuable Humanities courses are, and I have read a number of excellent articles defending the presence of the Humanities in academia. And as Chair of my department, I have seen the distress on some parents’ faces when their children approach the English Department table during my college’s Open House.
What I have not seen, however, is a discussion of just what the Humanities are; not in terms of academic subjects, but rather in terms of the roles they play in our everyday lives.
Last year, I was one of 31 people selected by the New York Council for the Humanities to be in their first cohort of Public Scholars, and since then I have been thinking very carefully about the presence of the Humanities in the world outside the classroom. The Council describes the role of the Public Scholars Program as one that “promotes vibrant public humanities engagement across New York State by offering a selection of dynamic, compelling presentations facilitated by humanities scholars.” How the Scholars fulfill the Council’s goals is by traveling all across the state talking about topics we love (literature, music, art, mapmaking, media – the list is long and varied) in venues that are generally not in colleges or universities. I, myself, have spoken at a museum, two libraries, a landmark society and an historical society in places ranging from Utica to Spuyten Duyvil to East Greenbush to Vestal to Roslyn. These events have been tremendously rewarding for me, and have allowed me to meet people across New York State who have an appreciation for the valuable contributions the Humanities make to society.
If it were only the people attending the Public Scholars events who expressed this appreciation, it could be argued that the group is self-selected (i.e. people who already appreciate the Humanities). What I have found, however, is that some people (a waitress in Vestal, for example) who find out why I’m in their town will take a minute to talk about how important reading, music and art have been in their own lives. Touchingly, after telling me about their own experiences with the Humanities, they will thank me for coming to their community to talk about Sherlock Holmes stories, or about American war writing. Even if the topic is one that does not speak to them, they appreciate the value in what is being presented.
So how do we expand this understanding of the importance of the Humanities? I believe that, in order to do so, we must present a broader definition of what we mean when we say “the Humanities,” and provide clear examples of the impact the Humanities have on our lives each and every day.
It is probably easier to start with the examples. Forget for a moment the novels and poems you studied in school, the lectures on art and music you attended as a student. Think, instead, of your experiences outside of the classroom.
Have you listened to music recently? Did you sing along in the car, or in the shower? Have you ever put together a playlist on your phone, or through a streaming site? If you did design a playlist, then you are not just a person who listens to or even produces music (which you do when you sing, whether you can carry a tune or not). You have used a personal aesthetic to put works of art in a particular order for a particular aural effect – in other words, you are a curator.
Did you ever take a photograph? Better yet, have you shared that photograph through social media, or used it as your cover photo on Facebook or Twitter? If so, you have created a public work of art, viewed and enjoyed by many people.
Have you ever read a storybook to a child? Or watched a silly video on YouTube? Or enjoyed looking – however briefly – at a mosaic at your local subway stop? Do you doodle? Dance? Watch movies? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions (and these are just of few of the myriad possible questions I could have asked), then you have, in one way or another, engaged with the Humanities in your everyday life.
How, then, can these examples help us improve – or, better yet, expand – our definition of what the Humanities are? By helping us understand that the academic disciplines that fall under the category of Humanities represent more than just subjects taught in classrooms. They represent those activities that make us most human, and those activities that help us express our humanity in ways that are both beautiful and celebratory.
What seems to have been lost, then, is what is represented by the very word “Humanities.” Through familiarity, repetition, apathy, even deliberate distortion, the human seems to have become separated from “the Humanities.” We must learn to once again recognize the roles that areas such as art, music, literature, history, philosophy, and theater play in society. Once we recognize what the Humanities truly are, we will come to understand that they are an integral part of each of us. We are each, in our own way, engaged with the Humanities. Perhaps some of us just haven’t realized it until now.