According to a 2016 analysis from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the number of humanities undergraduate majors has been on a slow decline, hitting an all-time low in 2014. I recently started looking into scholarships and I discovered a painful fact: there are less scholarships for students in the humanities. It made me wonder if careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are the only worthy ones. In Australia, the government is trying to discourage careers in humanities by increasing the tuition fees for courses in humanities. As the global pandemic rages on, the emphasis is on doctors and nurses, so the whole world is looking to improve their health care system and with the economic crisis, entrepreneurs, marketers and managers are needed too. It seems that more and more, there is no place for the humanities, but is this really true?
Humanities are academic disciplines that study aspects of human society and culture which include language, literature and history. As the world becomes fast-paced and technologically advanced, it seems we no longer care to study the very aspects that make us human but rather we prefer to concentrate on space and technology. Yet the humanities are academic disciplines that we cannot dispense with. The humanities are closely associated with our humanity and as we find ways to make better computers that can replace our jobs, we cannot replace our humanity. The study of other languages enables “close encounters with surprising new ways of thinking and comprehending the world”. When we learn the languages of others, we learn who they are. This is why language is a fundamental part of culture because it is the vehicle through which we interact with the world. Studying languages gives us insight into the heart of a people. For instance, I am currently learning French and I have discovered interesting things about myself that I otherwise would not have known.
By learning French, I am learning about culture and people different from my own and I am discovering similarities and differences from my own culture. Thus, learning a language can help us develop empathy because suddenly the people we thought were so strange are not so different after all. No wonder Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart.” That quote shows how powerful language is. Now how could the study of it not be just as powerful? Really, the study of language will always be relevant. Another important aspect of the humanities is history. Our history makes us who we are. Looking back can help us move forward and with the study of history, we learn about the mistakes others have made and how we could avoid them. History helped the world to know that there was a pandemic in 1918 and exactly how it affected the world at that time. One of the beautiful things preserved from that time was a poem I discovered on Twitter detailing how it felt to stay home during a pandemic. So many people connected with that poem and I wonder if we all realized the significance of the preservation of that poem.
History, just like language, also teaches us empathy. Empathy is an important emotion that we would always need as humans. It helps us feel what others feel and walk a mile in their shoes. By learning about the stories of those who came before us, we discover more about ourselves and who we really are. As Professor Jennifer Marusic puts it, “These inquiries deepen our understanding of the past, enlarge the present and suggest a range of sustainable paths through the unknown future”. The humanities study history and as the world continues to move forward with technology, we would need those who detail the stories of those who came before us. It would always be an important part of us. Now we come to my favorite part of the humanities and that is literature. Words are so powerful, they have the power to stay with us long after the author is gone. Think of Toni Morrison and her insightful novel, Beloved or Maya Angelou’s, I Know why the Caged Bird Sings, how these stories have told the tales of black American women and what they have been through. You might even think of our very own Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel.
In fiction, we tell the truth and in literature, we tell our stories. In literature, we move beyond the immediate to grapple with the examination of the entirety of the human condition and the complex moral issues that are ever present in life. Literature mirrors life; it helps us look candidly at ourselves and our motives and it opens up our world just like language does. Readers live a thousand times and from the comfort of your bed, you can travel to the ends of the earth through the pages of a book. Literature is truth. I cannot imagine a world where we would no longer read because reading is reflecting and reflecting fosters growth. In the humanities, we use different methods to learn about individuals, including ourselves, and groups of peoples, according to Valerie Strauss. We examine relationships and feelings of both ourselves and others. This in-depth examination of relationships and feelings allows us to make sense of ourselves, others and the world around us. We develop critical thinking that goes beyond problem solving to intrapersonal and interpersonal skills. Whether through film, language, history or literature, the humanities seek to discover who we really are by critically examining our very selves. That is a worthy endeavor, one that should not be relegated but should work side by side with the Business and Science fields to create and cover the whole panoply of human interactions and life.
This reminds me of a tweet I came across on the travails of the pandemic where the person expressed that doctors, nurses, farmers, grocery workers saved our lives but writers, actors, musicians kept us from losing our minds. Indeed, the humanities help us to retain our humanities in a world that is completely different from anything we had known. The case for the humanities is succinctly made in the powerful words of Professor Diane Harris in an interview in the Continuum, “there is no question that STEM education is tremendously important but in the absence of a strong background in the humanities, STEM alone will leave our society impoverished and ill-prepared for the rapidly changing world ahead. It then means that far from being degrees to nowhere, humanities degrees -as all the data shows- are degrees to everywhere”. It is therefore in the interest of our full development as human beings and the rounded existence of human societies that we should not relegate to the background the useful and important studies and education in humanities, even with the current obsession with science and technological education.
- Wale-Olaitan is an educationist
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