Following the recent report of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the crisis in the Humanities entitled “The Heart of the Matter,” I have seen quite a few insightful commentaries, most stressing economic utility — how the humanities help students succeed in whatever endeavor they pursue — and some stressing how the humanities contribute to making students better citizens in a democracy.
In my definition, the humanities not only include literature of both ancient and modern languages, the performing arts, philosophy, comparative religion, and cultural studies, but also history, anthropology, and linguistics, although the latter three are often on the border between humanities and the social sciences.
What follows are my own reasons to study the humanities, with a particular focus on the arts. My reasons balance utility with more idealistic quality of life issues. Thus I want to stress both the isness and doesness of the humanities, which in fact is a version of the Horatian credo of delighting and instructing.
On the utility or doesness side, I would stress the value of learning to think critically and independently, read powerfully and perceptively, write lucidly and precisely, and speak articulately.
On the quality of life or isness side, I would stress that the arts take us into imagined worlds created by different minds and enable us to understand how others live. We are what we read, the museums we visit and the performances we see and hear. They are as much us — part of our memories, our isness — as the culture we inherit and the life experiences we have.
That entry into other worlds and minds does give us a larger context for thinking about how to live and how to confront and understand present personal and historic issues, even while also giving us pleasure for its own sake.