Just exactly what is (or are) ‘the humanities’?

Published 9:15 am Tuesday, May 25, 2010

humanity – pron. \hyü-‘ma-nə-tē, yü-\; n, pl. humanities (from the Latin: humanitas); 1: the quality or state of being humane; 2a: the quality or state of being human, b plural: human attributes or qualities (his work has the ripeness of the 18th century, and its rough humanities — Pamela H. Johnson); 3 plural: the branches of learning (philosophy, arts, or languages) that investigate human constructs and concerns, as opposed to natural processes (physics or chemistry) and social relations (anthropology or economics); 4: the human race.

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 10th Edition

It’s a given. Every time I tell someone my job title at Waldorf College — my name tag reads “Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities” — they say “oh,” and then they ask “So what do you teach?”

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Most of the time, the questioner wants to know the obvious, practical answer: as assistant professor of humanities I teach writing, literature, philosophy, religion, and German (so far). But occasionally some people want an answer to the deeper question: What is (or are) the humanities?

People. That’s what the humanities is all about. More precisely, the stories people tell, the art and music they make, the buildings they live and work in … and the list could go on. It means learning the answers to the question, “What does being human mean?”

The word humanity comes to English from Latin. Humanitas first shows up with the writer Cicero, who used it to describe good people, that is to say “civilized” human beings. It entered English usage in the 14th century. The main definition of the singular form — humanity — refers to being “humane” and is synonymous with “civilized” and “well-educated.” Humane people recognize and practice concepts like “hospitality” and “justice” even if precise definitions might vary in different times and places. The word also refers to a collective — human beings as a group or the human race.

Used in the plural — humanities — it usually becomes “the humanities” or a field of study within university settings, a “subject” in which scholars study, discuss and debate a people’s history, music, art, languages, philosophy, religion, and literature. The humanities have been part of the university curriculum since the very beginning. It’s the subject I teach, over a broad range of courses.

When we study the humanities we are studying people, only not psychologically or biologically (although those fields do come into it from time to time). Mainly we’re learning about how people create the world they live in, and how the world they live in makes them the people they are. And while studying the many different subjects contained with the humanities, we inevitably end up learning about more than simply past or distant cultures. We end up learning how we create the world we live in now, and how the world we live in makes us the kind of people we are.

The humanities are at the core of any liberal arts education because it’s about understanding how people are active creators of culture, not just passive recipients of tradition. We can choose to do many things with our lives — work, passions, music, stories, art — and those choices shape who we become as we continue to grow and learn and change.

The longer I talk on and on about the humanities, and trust me, I can go on and on, the more often another question arises: Where does a bachelor of arts in the humanities lead? What can people do with that after graduating?

I’ve learned that people usually appreciate the fascinating things that can be learned via a humanities BA, but they also have practical concerns, sometimes about their own children. Will they get jobs with decent incomes? Will they be happy and successful? Will they ever move out of the basement and into a place of their own?

With a degree in the humanities, people can head in just about any direction they want, from law to business to medicine to politics to homemaking. When we study the subjects contained with the humanities, as we try to answer our questions about humanity, we learn how to think critically, how to solve problems, and how to see issues from a variety of perspectives. We learn how to speak and write with conviction. It’s hard to come up with a career or vocation in which those skills aren’t important.

When studying the humanities, we learn about many different kinds of people and ways of thinking about life, the universe and everything, but more importantly, I think we also learn how to be humane — how to be good people — wherever and however we live.

Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column appears every other Tuesday.