what are humanities?

Studying the humanities is a way of trying to make sense of life. It’s trying to find things in common between yourself, everyone else around the world, and all of the people from the past and future. There are many differences between people, but the humanities are about finding the similarities and understanding why, over the years, humanity has acted the way we have and accomplished everything we have.

The process of studying the humanities should involve historical analysis, introspection, philosophy, and more. Almost any skill or academic discipline can aid in studying the humanities if it tells us something about humans, as Dr. Robb proved with his unit on the Copernican Revolution (see the “Project 2” page of this portfolio for an essay I wrote connecting the Copernican Revolution and the civil rights movement!). It is hard to define exactly what the humanities are or what skills should be used in studying them because this definition may vary from person to person depending on what aspects of humanity each person finds to be most important.

To me personally, the humanities are about understanding. It’s about entering a situation and seeking to learn about the other person’s perspective. Whether that’s an old story like Candide by Voltaire as we read at Sapere Aude, or a lecture by a professor on her research, or even just a conversation among friends at the lunch table. The humanities are about observing and learning and keeping your mind open to new things about being human that you might never have anticipated.

Sometimes, this even involves understanding or connecting with people in ways that scare you. When we were studying Ulrike Meinhof, I remember thinking that many aspects of her story reminded me of my roommate, Savanna Vest. Savanna is also interested in journalism and really cares about activism and social movements, like Meinhof. I was not the only one who thought this; later that day, Savanna and I had a conversation because Savanna saw Meinhof in herself as well. This made her anxious as she questioned if she could ever be radicalized and commit violence the way Meinhof did. This is an example of how the humanities often force us to confront parts of humanity and of ourselves that may scare or confuse us, thus giving us insight into human nature.

In studying genocide, we were also forced to confront the concept of banal evil. In terms of the Holocaust or the Rwandan Genocide, many of the murderers were not genuinely evil people, but simply following orders. It’s easy and even comforting to believe that, in situations of mass evil, we would have the strength to act morally. However, in learning about banal evil, it forced me to question whether or not I would uphold my morals in a situation like that. I don’t think there is any way to truly know, but it is an important question to consider.

I personally believe that there is no difference between the humanities (as in the works) and the Humanities (as in the discipline we study). I believe that both of these things have the same goal, and that is to study human nature. The discipline of the Humanities is the way it is because of the humanities we study. These are two parts of the same thing, all of which makes up a full definition of the humanities. It would not be complete without either including the works or the discipline as a whole.

This humanities course was instrumental in helping me construct my definition of the humanities, as it successfully asked me to consider new questions and aspects of human nature. I now have a new understanding of myself and the people around me, and I believe that’s exactly what a course like this should do.

This is an image of a page in my red notebook. I wrote these notes during Unit 8 when we studied Ulrike Meinhof. I believe these notes/questions are a great example of what the humanities are because they are questions that force you to consider what human nature is, how people would react to situation, and how this affects the world.