Why the Humanities Matter

Malik Neal, Columnist

In his novel, Hard Times, Charles Dickens introduces us to the character Thomas Gradgrind—a notorious headmaster, who in the zealous pursuit of practicality, sees education as a means only to prepare pupils for profitable enterprises. “A man of realities,” Mr. Gradgrind views the humanities with scorn, seeing history, philosophy, literature and related disciplines as “destructive nonsense” that has no bearing or relevance to individuals in contemporary society.

The spirit of Mr. Gradgrind is very much alive today, displayed in an increasing number of students who have decided not to indulge in the study of humanities because, in their view, it does not prepare them for a specific, profitable vocation. This is not entirely surprising. As the economy struggles, so, too, do the humanities at today’s universities and colleges. The humanities, however, illuminate the human condition. It enriches critical thinking, provides us with historical knowledge and perspective and instills within us a constant desire to inquire. Such qualities are not only invaluable for the individual but are prerequisites for any meaningful participation in a democratic society.

The “humanities” really constitute the sum total of human literacy, historical, cultural and artistic achievement on this planet. They are the essence of humanity. While every person obviously must have a job to live, that person lives within a context, and that context is our culture, which defines how we relate to one another.

One cannot understand society unless the elements of how that society came to be are appreciated. This appreciation, or, more precisely, knowledge, comes only through a study of literature, history, philosophy, religion and art. In order to function in a society, one must have at least some basic idea of how that society came into being in the first instance. As an old African proverb recites: “He who knows nothing of the past is condemned to remain a child forever.”

Moreover, the questions currently being debated in our country–immigration, religion, the role of government–are not entirely new. These are questions that thinkers have been answering and discussing for ages. The history and varied ways thinkers have approached these questions are an integral part of the humanities. Such historical knowledge and perspective is needed for any individual who seeks to be a leader in the 21st century.

In order to navigate around and through a society or culture, one must know its contours, and those contours are outlined by the society’s history, art, religious beliefs and philosophy. Knowing how to earn a living is only one small part of existing in a culture. It is essential, however, a livelihood tells us little about how to conduct one’s life in harmony with other people, avoiding conflict, unhappiness and despair. In short, knowledge of the “humanities” gives one more than just diversion and transitory entertainment; it gives one a sense of purpose.

Humans should not, as Mr. Gradgrind suggested, be mere machines of utility. We have a deeper meaning and purpose. As a biblical phrase suggest, “Man does not live by bread alone.” In fact, knowledge of the humanities is what separates a self-actualized individual from a machine.

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2 Responses to Why the Humanities Matter

  1. Ave Armstrong says:

    As one of Malik’s teachers, I am full of pride not only with his thesis but also with his text. What a treat to have know and taught Malik.

  2. This is the 2nd occasion I have come across your blog post in the last couple weeks. Seems like I ought to take note of it.

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