Why They Are Called ‘The Humanities’

“Then what are we fighting for?”

-Attributed to Winston Churchill, in response to a suggestion that arts education be cut to fund the war effort.

There has been a furor over recent cuts in humanities education at the university level in America. Most of the counter-arguments for keeping the humanities alive play out the “transferable skills” angle. My wife, a piano teacher, knows these arguments all too well–that learning to play an instrument accelerates childhood brain development, and that music actually teaches certain kinds of mathematical reasoning (such as fractions).  Likewise, with literature, English departments often underscore the importance of “soft skills” like communication.

But in the end, this line of thinking only lends strength to the argument to, for example, replace courses in Shakespeare with more practical courses in business and technical writing. It is also not difficult to imagine games designed by psychologists to more effectively deliver specific, developmental results than learning to playing Bach partitas ever will. Clearly, the argument that the humanities can deliver practical, bottom-line results is problematic. Why, then, are they so critical in difficult times?

When I transferred out of the computer engineering department at a top university during the height of the dot-com era to study poetry instead, many thought I was crazy. Several years later, after the death of our infant son, poetry became the only language that made sense. It kept me sane when nothing seemed sane anymore. I credit my being here to write this now in large part to all the Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton I read back then–which opened the door to Seamus Heaney, Robert Hass, and Li-Young Lee. I found a means to embrace some of the greatest paradoxes of living, and transcend human suffering, through their words.

It is the centuries-old tradition of humanities education that passes down the words of Socrates to us, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Humanities examine what it means to be alive, and human. And now more than ever, after market crashes, environmental disasters, and seemingly endless and intractable wars, we must ask ourselves: do we really have an excess of humanity? Is our ability to embrace the complexity of living with dignity and compassion at such a surplus nowadays that it should be the first thing to go?

Any text can teach you to read, and any topic can teach you to write. Only literature can teach you why to read, and why to write. Science can measure how well you hear and see. But visual and performing arts teach us why these senses matter. Do not support the humanities because they will give you the means to an easier life. Support them because they will quite simply make life worth living, no matter how difficult it gets.

Do not sign your child up for piano lessons because you want to give them an edge over other kids. Do it because they may wake up one day somewhere in suburbia, surrounded by all the symbols of material prosperity, with a deep and gnawing hollowness that negates every grade or promotion they ever won. And if, in that moment, a bar of Bach or a line from Shakespeare returns to them, they might just have a reason to go on being human, and alive.