The Humanities: An Introduction
What are the Humanities? Why study them? How do we go about studying them?
Colleges and universities generally divide areas of academic study this way:
Humanities Physical Sciences Social Sciences
Art Botany History
Music Zoology Sociology
Philosophy Physics Psychology
Literature Chemistry Political Science
In the physical sciences we generally study physical properties of nature; how matter behaves; what nature is
composed of. The goal is to find answers that all observers can agree on. Water is generally composed of two atoms
of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Jupiter is a gaseous planet with (at last count) 17 moons. The test of truth in the
sciences involves the ability of other scientists to reproduce experiments and achieve the same results.
In the social sciences we study the way people behave and interrelate, particularly when in relatively large groups.
The social sciences supply answers that are much less universal and absolute than those of the physical sciences--but
still answers on which some sort of general agreement is usually possible. How do irate crowds behave when a tank
suddenly appears? What is the best form of government for a given developing nation with a high illiteracy rate?
What is the effect of televised violence on children?
In the humanities we explore some of the most important ideas and creations that individual minds have conceived.
In studying these ideas and creations we often confront questions which have no satisfying answers, or at least
questions which might rightly be answered in several quite different ways. What was the guiding principle in the
construction of the Parthenon? Order? Harmony? Simplicity? Symmetry? What themes dominate Homer's Odyssey?
Identity? Family? Moderation? Quest for Knowledge? Search for Adventure?
What does Aeschylus convey about justice in the Oresteia? What does Marie de France imply about the effect of
gender roles on personality? What dominates Michelangelo's conception of God? What was Shakespeare's attitude
toward racism? What did Mme. de La Fayette feel about the place of women in society? Why did Frederick
Douglass value education so highly. There are a variety of good answers to all these questions. The job usually isn't
to find an answer to questions in the humanities, but to evaluate potential answers and decide for ourselves what
each is worth and why from various perspectives some are worth more than others.
II Why study the Humanities? Why does it have to be part of the core curriculum? Why can't you just take courses
in your major field? These are good questions and they deserve good answers.
Let's start by asking why we study the physical sciences and the social sciences, which are also a part of the core
The most important reason for studying the physical sciences, the reason that scientists study them, is that they're
interesting. Often the best people study them for no other reason. There's another more practical reason: life is
getting technically more complicated every day, and we need tools in our heads to help us understand why tomatoes
grow well in one part of the garden and poorly in another; why the car will start on a dry day, but not on a wet one;
why it's important to eat balanced meals; whether we should be happy or unhappy to learn that a nuclear power plant
will be located a few miles away.
The most important reason for studying the social sciences is, again, they're interesting. It's obvious that we need
specialists in history, sociology, psychology, political science to help us create the kind of society we want. But
what about you as an individual? Unlike the average Iraqi or Cuban or North Korean, you have a great deal of
freedom in terms of affecting the society you live in. You, and people like you, will have to vote to decide whether
it's good to have a balanced budget amendment; whether assault rifles ought to be banned; whether people on the
local school board are representing your interests; whether the county assessor is screwing you; whether cable
television should be publicly owned or privately owned; whether television news should support the status quo or
work for change.
Why study the humanities? The best reason is that they're interesting. You spend a great deal of money and a great
deal of time, for instance, watching movies like Schindler's List and Do the Right Thing and others, movies that
humanists are studying today and may be studying for centuries. The Odyssey, Faust, Madame Bovary and most of
the other works you'll study for this course will be every bit as interesting and fun if you'll let them.
A lot of things are interesting -- so why study the humanities? Why not spend the quarter on In Living Color or
Good question. Good enough for two answers, one from the view point of society, one from the viewpoint of the
Why does society need the humanities? KULTURE. Every society needs an upper class; the very best science and
technology serve the elite; the elite benefits from manipulating the social sciences--using psychology and sociology
and political science to manipulate people. Obviously society needs the humanities (i.e. KULTURE) to serve the
upper classes. Rich people go to operas and symphonies and art galleries to show off--these are invaluable as status
symbols. We all want to be rich and upper class and so we study the humanities so we'll be ready when the time
comes: Frasier Crane.
This is the answer a great many people implicitly assume is the right one--it's only the right answer for the wrong
people. At bottom it's the worst answer of all.
Why does society really need the humanities? To be honest, in one sense, society doesn't need the humanities at all;
the humanities, in fact, might mean the death of a society. Totalitarian societies like those of North Korea and
Tanzania and Iraq not only would be ready to tolerate the death of the humanities, they persecute them.
Many people believe the greatest living novelist is Alexander Solzenhitzen; few people were as persecuted by the
communists. Solzenhitzen spoke as an individual; he spoke the truth as he saw it, not as the state wanted it to be
seen; he spoke up for an individual's ideas of truth and justice and good--and these challenged the way things were
in the Soviet Union. Other humanists are persecuted by totalitarian societies all over the world for the same reasons-
-each is a threat to the status quo in the society of which she or he is a part. Socrates and Christ represented
comparable threats a couple of thousand years ago.
A free society, however, desperately needs the humanities if it's to be healthy, vital, and progressive. Only a society
that intends to stand still can afford to neglect ideas that can be effectively explored only by the humanities. A free
and vital society needs constant re-exposure to ideas that are always important no matter how long they've been
around, and it needs for these ideas to be presented as dynamically and as effectively as possible, with the full force
that sounds and images and words can bring to ideas. Society needs the full force of truth, as close to the whole and
complete truth as possible--that it's bad for people to die; that it's good for people to die; that individual rights must
be subordinate to the needs of the state; that individual rights must take precedence over the needs of the state; that
all human beings are equal; that all human beings are not equal.
Every day society will get only simple, incomplete, ineffective, very harmful answers to questions relating to
concerns like these unless the minds dealing with these questions are as wide awake, aware, informed, and as
compassionate as possible. Ideally, in the humanities the agents or functionaries of the state experience in-depth
exposure to the constant principal problems inherent in humanity and consequently are better able to deal practically
with specific problems because they are aware of wider implications, because they don't rely wholly on the limited
ideas and experiences they would ordinarily be exposed to other wise. Ideally, they'll become more flexible, more
tolerant, will have a finer perspective on themselves, on us, and on the society we share.
The humanities won't make answers to such questions easy, won't make it certain that all people will agree, won't
guarantee that the right answers will always be reached--the humanities will guarantee that more people will have
more tools to help create a better answer. And that's important.
But what about from the individual's point of view: What's in it for me? Why should I be here when I could be in
biology or business or out having a good time? Working, making money, making love! Right?
As an individual you need exposure to the constant and fundamental questions that are part of being human, and you
need exposure to some of the most important answers to these questions. One of these fundamental questions that
every married person will be concerned with is infidelity. (For the record, the English and Fine Arts departments
aren't advocating it.) It's simple to give the easy, automatic answer: adultery is always completely and totally wrong.
For Abraham, one of the patriarchs, the answer wasn't all that easy. In the 12th chapter of Genesis we learn that:
There came a famine in the land, so severe that Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while. When he was
approaching Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, 'I know very well that you are a beautiful woman, and that when the
Egyptians see you, they will say, "She is his wife"; then they will kill me but let you live. Tell them that you are my
sister, so that all may go well with me because of you and my life may be spared on your account.' When Abram
arrived in Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was indeed very beautiful. Pharaoh's courtiers saw her and praised her
to Pharaoh, and she was taken into Pharaoh's household. He treated Abram well because of her, and Abram came to
possess sheep and cattle and asses, male and female slaves, she-asses and camels.
Later, of course, all the guilty parties paid, to some extent (not too much), for what they did. But suddenly, after
Abraham's behavior, the question doesn't seem all that simple. For Homer it seems okay that Odysseus not be
faithful, and equally right that Penelope risk her life to avoid adultery, but why? You'll soon read the Agamemnon in
which we have two cases of adultery, one by a man, one by a woman, and to fully understand and appreciate the
play you'll have to decide just how guilty the characters involved really are. In 222 Marie de France will give us one
woman's response (terribly old-fashioned and naive, or marvelously modern and sophisticated?) when her husband
leaves her for a young flirt. The subject of adultery becomes even more terribly complicated when we come to
Madame Bovary in 323. She's too real, too much like people we know, too much like us. She's sympathetic, but not
too sympathetic, understandable, but not too understandable, and her experience is somehow so real that when we
pass through the parallel experience of reading the book, when we vicariously share her life, we understand
something about adultery very deeply and very completely and in a way no sermon and no sociology text, no
psychology text can ever make us understand.
How important is money? How important is love? What must God be like? What's the proper role of women in
society? How much is it possible for us to shape our lives (totally? or are we predetermined products of heredity and
environment?)? These aren't easy questions. You'll understand them better when this series of courses is over. The
courses won't make them easier to answer, should make them harder-- harder because you'll appreciate the
complexity involved, see how many answers that might have been easy aren't satisfactory, and how important it is to
allow yourself to be flexible, to be tolerant, to give the right answer.
Maybe you don't need or want to understand the fuller implications of problems you'll be facing for the rest of your
life--a lot of people survive this way. But they're less human than they would be otherwise, and that's what the
humanities are about--what it means to be human, to have and use a mind.
So the humanities will be useful to you. But the humanities would be worthwhile even if they were no aid at all in
facing the fundamental and constant problems involved in the human condition. They'll give you wider and deeper
experiences: you'll explore Hell in Dante's Inferno, Eden in Paradise Lost, idealism in Don Quixote, the moment of
death with Emily Dickinson, justice in the Oresteia, slavery with Frederick Douglass.
If you don't want it, okay. Waste your time and try to squeeze by with cribs and Cliff's Notes. If you do want all that
the Humanities can offer, get all you can out of the courses. Try to have fun, try to get interested, let it mean
something to you, let yourself learn and grow, let the humanities help you become more fully human. You'll think
many thoughts you otherwise wouldn't have thought; you'll experience very complex emotions you otherwise
wouldn't have felt. You'll be a richer, more alive, more aware human being. And that will be a good thing.
III How will we do this? How will we go about studying the humanities? We'll stand on the shoulders of giants.
We'll study individual works of some of the wisest human beings who ever lived--some of the greatest thinkers and
greatest feelers the human race has produced. We'll get in their skins and heads and try to understand what they
thought and felt. Then we'll try to see the patterns these fall in. We'll try to understand ourselves and our world by
getting some perspective, some sense of where we as a society, and as individuals, came from.
Soon, after comparing several works from across cultures and times, you'll see fascinating patterns begin to develop.
You'll begin to be able to relate yourself and your society to these patterns. You'll begin to be able to place new
ideas, and trace the evolution of old ones, and incidentally discover that many of the most "radical" are among the
Since you've been paying attention to popular music you've seen it grow and develop into families or branches--
there are no clear divisions, but the branches are very clear. Some of you, for instance, have seen Big Band or Swing
music meld with the music of crooners like Frank Sinatra; you saw rock and roll music evolve from this music and
from certain kinds of country music with people like Elvis; you've seen rock and roll develop into various kinds of
rock music with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Acid Rock and Folk Rock and Heavy Metal and Punk and
Rap and Alternative. More than this, you've seen how styles in music can be tied to styles in dress and attitudes and
The same sorts of things happen with ideas in literature and art--they grow and change and develop in families or
branches over long periods of time. Largely for convenience and order we study people in these big historical lumps
or periods. Over the centuries many scholars, critics, historians, and other students of cultures have caused certain
phrases or concepts to become associated with these various periods of Western civilization. Humanities instructors
often disagree (a classic German definition of a professor is: "someone who thinks otherwise") on which terms best
apply to various periods, and few (maybe none) will agree wholly with the list that follows, but don't worry--
obviously, your instructor will give you the real truth about what was going on in each period.
By the time this course is over you'll often be able to take a painting or piece of music or poem you've never been
exposed to before, and tell pretty much where it belongs, where it fits chronologically and in terms of the ideals it
reflects. You'll have a pretty good idea of what the artist was trying to do, how well the works succeeds, and most
important of all, what it means to you. That's the final and really important question: What's in it for me? If you get
all you can out of the course the answer is a lot. Honestly. A lot.
And after a semester you should be not only able, but anxious to answer questions like a few which humanities
classes have answered: How should a man or a woman live his or her life? What is the nature of happiness? What is
the ultimate question of life?
You can't ask for much more than that, now can you?