From philosophy, history and literature to music, art, sociology, psychology, and anthropology, the humanities are as they sound: the study of what makes us human. Often pitted against the sciences, the humanities and sciences go hand-in-hand in understanding the world around us.
If the humanities are so crucial, why are they so undervalued? Because it’s hard to put a value on how we process the human experience—it’s hard to determine your career path with a humanities degree.
Let’s take a closer look at the importance of humanities in the present day context.
1. Not everything can be reduced to a data point.
Data points can be useful, but not only are they not always necessary, they’re not always possible.
In an article in The Atlantic, cultural critic Leon Wieseltier said, “What we need to do is recognize the limitations of that mentality.” He added, “The purpose of the humanities is not primarily utilitarian, it is not primarily to get a job… The purpose of the humanities is to cultivate the individual, cultivate the citizen.”
He argued that our present culture prioritizes speed and definitive answers over thinking and asking complex questions. Consider history—while you could make the argument that dates are data points, we don’t study history for the dates—we study history to think about the context of choices made in the past, and the consequences of those choices for the future.
Hard to put a data point on that. It's’ also critical that we think about it.
2. The opposite of humanities is ignorance.
If you think about the humanities as the study of what makes us human, that includes not only our history, but our values and how we choose to live.
Ignoring these choices and these stories sets us—all of us—up for failure. It makes room for misguided opinions, drives wedges into reason. and encourages chaos.
How are we to understand how to make choices moving forward if we choose to ignore the choices of the past and present?
3. New technologies depend on the humanities to survive.
Consider User Experience, or UX—how easily you interface with technology to have an easy, friendly, productive experience with every interaction you have with technology.
How does Facebook make you feel good? How does online shopping make you feel—how does your UX with your online shopping cart make you want to buy more?
Put simply, how does technology appeal to people? It appeals to people by having tech designers understand humans—and to understand humans requires, you guessed it, a deep knowledge of the humanities.
How we like to look at art. How we like to envision ourselves. How we like to envision others.
Think about Steve Jobs—his focus was on the integration of the humanities with technology to make better products. The end results? You use some form of them every day. His most useful university course? Calligraphy. Why? He liked the way he could invoke a feeling with the appearance of a word. See all those cool fonts on your smartphone? That’s why they’re there.
4. Allows you to interpret the world in different ways.
The humanities give you permission to see the world through a different lens, while still understanding facts. They give you perspective. This is one of the key reasons STEM students are encouraged to study humanities. The world is not black and white—it’s big, nuanced, complicated, and filled with every shade in between.
Your education in the humanities gives you the power to understand another perspective, even if you don’t agree with it. It encourages you to use reason, not emotion, to arrive at conclusions.
It allows you to empathize with someone, even though you disagree—and forces you to challenge your own beliefs.
Provided you consistently apply logic and reason to your decision, you may change your mind, convince someone else, or keep your own opinions. Why is this important? It’s how we get along—or don’t.
To study the humanities opens a door. Give yourself the time and space to think, draw your own conclusions, and learn from the past. Why? Because we all have to move forward—it helps to have folks who are thinking along the way.