Many people think of a study in the humanities as light-weight work. Cancer will not be cured by a humanities student. Neither the tallest skyscraper, nor the spacecraft that carries the first humans to Mars will be built by a humanities student. However, if we seek to understand the glory and the dream of being alive, the power of human intuition, the beauty of art and poetry, we will find answers to many of life’s questions. The sciences will come from our understanding of the world and the laws of nature; wisdom comes from understanding ourselves. We need both, but our other pursuits will be vastly enriched if we begin our study with the humanities.
To study humanities, one must be ready for critical self reflection. The path begins with a question, not a thesis, another difference from sciences. What does it mean to be human and humane? Rational and reasoned? Cultured and moral? Learned and worldly? How do we envision ourselves as human beings bound to other human beings? What roles do empathy and imagination play in our existence? Humanities links traditional interests and values such as aesthetics, ethics, and politics, with imagination, signification, deconstruction and power. History matters, as does conscience and historical memory. They are essential to any understanding of the universe.
Humanitas was a word coined by Cicero regarding what he saw as the ideal human being, “educated to possess a collection of virtues of character suitable for an active life of public service.” He felt there were certain disciplines of study that would enrich the life of a human being. These included poetry and literature, mainly, but the term soon broadened to include ancient and modern languages, literature, law, history, philosophy, religion, visual and performing arts. These early concepts of humanistic study influenced the Renaissance, and a host of other revivals of the classical education model, as well as persuaded some eighteenth century British citizens in new world colonies to form “a more perfect union.”
Many people argue that American education has become too focused. Students pick a course of study as early as high school, and therefore lack the scope and breadth of learning required to be a citizen of the world. Others argue that students waste too much time and money studying things in school that they will not need in life.
Education is to make a better, more aware, more active and cultured person who is guided in life by strong morals, values and ethics formed from intense study of the world. Whatever challenges one faces in life, whatever setbacks, disasters, blows, and storms a man must weather, his education will guide him to make the right choices, and he will understand that money and fame are transitory, but love, honor, courage, and friendship fuel the journey.
So what can one do with a humanities degree? One can understand why ignorance is more dangerous than any bomb. One can understand why the greatest threat to humankind is humankind. One can understand why racism, bigotry, and bullying are products of fear. One can see great beauty in a farmer tilling his field. One can appreciate the plight of a beggar in Calcutta. One can understand when people demand a better life, a more informed government, a voice in the process. One can understand that human beings often succeed against overwhelming odds, and that some will call this a miracle or an example of divine intervention. In the end, it is simply human beings and their remarkable capacity to thrive in the most harrowing of circumstances.
Years ago, I took an astronomy class. I dreaded taking it, because I lacked ability and confidence with advanced science work, but it was a requirement for graduation, so I signed up. The course began in the laboratory with parabolas, elaborate equations for computing the arc of planets through the skies, the mathematical positioning of entire constellations. Numbers, numbers, numbers, numbers. I was lost. One night class meeting, we trudged out in the middle of a citrus grove to a small shack that contained a telescope owned by the university. We each had a set of stars to chart in their paths across the sky. Once out there, hundreds of yards from the nearest campus building, the professor found that the telescope was missing an important eyepiece. He cancelled the evening right there, and rescheduled the event for later in the week. The students packed their notes and returned to the campus. I found a grassy patch in an open area among the blossoming, sweet-smelling trees, spread out my jacket on the cold ground, and threw myself down to stare up at the stars. No calculations, notes, or graphs. I lay there, hands under my head, the night skies of March above me. It was so hard to believe that the light from the stars was a million years old but only reaching my eyes on earth right then. Some of those bodies of light might not even exist anymore. I thought of philosophy and history, struggling to find a comparison. We live and die, but the light from our lives continues long after we ourselves are extinguished.
I stayed out in that citrus grove for a good hour with the stars, the blinking lights of planes, the whispers of the universe. When I stood up, it was close to eleven o’clock, the air was crisp but heavy with the scent of orange blossoms, as only early spring nights in Los Angeles can be. I gathered my things and walked toward the lights of the university, knowing only a little about the science of stars, but already becoming fully aware of my place in the universe. It was a good night.