why study the humanities?

What is the value of the humanities? Why should we study it? The New York Times recently published an article on the state of the humanities given the current economic recession.

According to the NYT, “[I]n this new era of lengthening unemployment lines and shrinking university endowments, questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency.”

While the humanities may not seem as salient as engineering, chemistry, or any of the other “hard” sciences, it plays an indispensable role in the world.

There is a great misunderstanding of what the humanities is and what it can do. People often assume that the humanities is just about “reading the great literary and philosophical works and coming ‘to grips with the question of what living is for.'” (NYT).

I would argue that humanities — at least from a Cultural Studies perspective — is much more than reading the canon and reflecting on the meaning of life.

In Cultural Studies, we approach theory as practice. Thinking and acting outside of the ivory tower, Cultural Studies attempts to produce research that engages with the public. As cultural researcher, I am constantly asking myself the “So what?” question. Why does this topic matter? Why should people care?

This continuous self-questioning helps bridge the gap between theory and practice. While I am an advocate of learning for the sake of learning, I believe scholars have the responsibility to think about the ways in which their research relates to the larger picture.

What is the point of research if it doesn’t affect the way people think about and act in the world?

One thing I think Cultural Studies does effectively is re-thinking the way we have traditionally thought about things. In Cultural Studies, few things — if anything — is taken for granted. Our research is largely driven by the question of what it means to be human.Through critical and creative engagement, we attempt to probe this question in a way that inspires everyday people to imagine what might be instead of what is.

This critical and creative engagement is especially important given the dire state of the economy and the need for innovative ways of being in the world.


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7 Responses to “why study the humanities?”

  1. Richard N. Landers Says:

    Can you give an example? Your description has a lot of words that set off my business-speak red flag – bridging gaps, re-thinking, engagement, innovation. What specific effects has Cultural Studies had on society?

    • melissa andrada Says:

      Hi Richard,

      Thanks for your comment. I’ll be responding to your questions in my next blog entry, so stay tuned.

  2. the practice of cultural studies: theory as practice « Says:

    […] « why study the humanities? […]

  3. Chad Says:

    I’ve also found myself increasingly engaged with the topic of the future of the humanities. I think we are at a crucial stage at which it is necessary to show how the humanities are continually relevant. I think back to the basic questions of early Greek philosophy–questions of self-knowledge and well-being (the good life). In the university, our discipline is unique, because we are the only ones who are seeking answers to such questions. In general, you aren’t going to take an engineering course and land on the subject of human mortality, for example. (Although that would be great if it did indeed happen.)

    I especially liked your comment, “What is the point of research if it doesn’t affect the way people think about and act in the world?”
    For some reason, I’ve begun reading American pragmatist philosophers such as William James and John Dewey, and this reminds me of them. James has a great phrase he often uses–“fruits for life.” The value of anything is its ability to produce fruits for life–tangible, practical results that are both lasting and essential to our well-being. Again, the humanities uniquely do this, and I believe it’s the key to our relevance.

    I look forward to continuing this discussion!

  4. melissa andrada Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Chad.

    I really like this passage from Richard Rorty’s essay “John Searle on Realism and Relativism”:

    “Nothing, including the nature of truth and knowledge, is worth worrying about if this worry will make no difference to practice. But there are all sorts of ways of making a difference. One of them is by slowly, over a long period of time, changing what Wittgenstein called the pictures that hold us captive. We will always be held captive by some picture or other, for this merely is to say we shall never escape from language or metaphor — never see either God or the Intrinsic Nature of Reality face to face. But old pictures may have disadvantages by sketching new pictures” (80).

    I think the humanities has the greatest impact on the world by sketching new pictures — suggesting new ways of thinking about the world. While these pictures may not have an immediate visible effect on a macro level, over time, they can have an enormous on the way everyday people think about and act in the world.

  5. style (stīl), n., Obsolete. a pen. « a universal fire Says:

    […] Why Study the Humanities? […]

  6. Karen Says:

    Being a qualitative researcher and amidst consumers all the time, I too agree that Humanities does make us more open-minded and makes us re-think and re discover ourselves in a typical environment. Being in the UAE makes me exposed to a diversity of cultures and I can actually feel my thinking evolving every time I talk to different people. This makes me a better researcher day by day when I am able to conclude and recommend marketers ….guess its “fruits for life” for all !

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