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If we ever needed the humanities, that time is now.

Our undergraduates read much less serious fiction than did their predecessors. Most rarely encounter the fine arts, whether the visual or performing arts. Relatively few received a religious education and aren’t especially familiar with biblical references or other religious, philosophical and spiritual traditions. Few will ever take a formal course in moral or political philosophy.

Indeed, many are dismissive of the humanities, which they regard as impractical, arcane and useless.

Nor do they find the most popular defense of the humanities—that it produces critical thinkers—compelling. After all, don’t the natural and behavioral sciences cultivate critical thinking? Of course they do.

But those fields don’t have as their goal cultivating culturally literate, civil, humane and responsible citizens.

When I say we need the humanities, I don’t mean the hyperspecialized, discipline-specific introductory humanities courses that populate the gen ed portion of the curriculum. I’m calling for something quite different. This would be a humanities that is more global, integrated and multidisciplinary and that speaks to fundamental aesthetic and ethical issues.

What we need is a humanities that will help form, refine and elevate our students’ sensibilities. The humanities’ fundamental goal, in my view, is to humanize people and help individuals become more empathetic, sensitive and moral.

The humanities isn’t a fixed entity. The concept has undergone far-reaching transformations over time, beginning with the ancient Greek conception of paideia, an educational approach intended to create well-rounded citizens, then proceeding to the Roman notion of humanitas, the humane virtues that educated people were expected to acquire and exhibit, the medieval ideal of the harmonious development of a person’s human capacities, and on to the Renaissance studia humanitatis, the study of grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy, the forms of knowledge that befit a free person.

During the 19th century, the humanities was redefined in opposition to the sciences. Unlike science, the humanities was interested in human creativity and subjectivity.  It focused on the ways that humans find and make meaning—not through the discovery of nature’s physical laws or by revealing the psychological and sociological underpinnings of human behavior, but by analyzing people’s thoughts, emotions, imaginings and memories; interpreting works of art, music and literature; exploring history; and pondering moral questions. 

Only in the 20th century did the humanities become equated with specific academic disciplines. The time has come to once again redefine the humanities. In my view, this will require us to conceive of the humanities not as a fixed body of content, a canon of essential cultural texts and artworks, or a set of research methods and interpretative strategies, but as a process of moral growth, personal maturation, character formation and psychological and emotional development that enables a person to thrive or flourish.

This is a conception of the humanities that resembles what Wilhelm von Humboldt meant by the German word Bildung.

The goal of such an education, according to the European Union’s Erasmus program, should be fourfold:

  1. To expand students’ horizons beyond their immediate circumstances by exposing them to history and other cultural, religious and philosophical traditions.
  2. To nurture emotional depth, the kind of self-knowledge “that comes from life itself, meeting disappointments, falling in love, heartbreak, becoming a parent … failing, succeeding, taking care of a sick parent, [or] losing a spouse …”
  3. To expand students’ sense of connection and empathy to those outside one’s web of loved ones, friends and acquaintances.
  4. To foster maturity, autonomy, a sense of responsibility and help instill a moral compass.

You might well say, isn’t that what the gen ed portion of the curriculum already does? I don’t think so. A class in world literature, a survey of U.S. history, an ethnic studies course and a music or art appreciation class don’t do what I think is needed.

We need experiences with a very different set of objectives, something that resembles the ancient Greek concept of paideia. That’s an education that seeks explicitly to produce a mature and informed citizen. It entails:

  • Moral and ethical training: Helping students understand what it means to lead a moral and meaningful life.
  • Cultural formation: Immersing students in the arts, literature and moral and political philosophy.
  • Oratory, rhetoric and composition: Teaching students to speak, write and argue persuasively.
  • Civics education: Preparing students to participate in civic life.
  • Philosophical Inquiry: Having students engage with philosophical ideas, question their values and think critically about their society.
  • Historical thinking: Instilling historical consciousness, an awareness and understanding of the past and its influence on the present and the future. More than just knowing historical facts; it’s about understanding the complexities, nuances and contexts of history, recognizing how interpretations of history change over time and seeing oneself in relation to the past.

The goal of such an education is to instill:

  • Empathy and cross-cultural understanding: Understanding and appreciating the beliefs, motivations, emotions, practices, struggles, circumstances and traditions of people from diverse cultures, without imposing contemporary values and judgments on them.
  • Ethical engagement: Grappling with profound moral and spiritual questions.
  • Aesthetic appreciation: Developing a capacity to respond to, engage with and analyze various forms of cultural expression and an understanding of the techniques that go into creating such works.
  • Temporal awareness: Understanding the importance of change over time, historical context and the multiple causes and often unintended consequences of historical events.
  • Self-reflexivity: Reflecting critically upon one’s own values, emotions and behavior.

This kind of humanistic education should not be Eurocentric, nor should it focus exclusively on the perspectives, ideas or forms of expression of elites or other dominant groups. It should foster a critical, skeptical consciousness and be attuned to issues of power and inequality.

But it differs in its emphases, methodologies and underlying philosophy from the kind of education offered by the social sciences.

It delves into the subjective aspects of human experience and seeks to understand meanings, values, experiences and forms of cultural expression. Its approach is less empirical and scientific than interpretive. It values subjective understanding and tends to embrace ambiguity, nuance, irony and multiple interpretations rather than seeking to formulate broadly applicable generalizations. It focuses on the dynamic, multidirectional process of cultural exchange, diffusion, adaptation, change and innovation. Its ultimate goal is to foster personal growth, self-expression, self-realization and self-understanding.

While a humanities education has always been valuable, the unique challenges and opportunities of our time make a humanistic education particularly relevant.

For one thing, as society grapples with a host of complex global challenges—from climate change to political polarization, from fake news to echo chambers and information bubbles—the humanities provides tools for critical thinking, ethical reasoning and understanding diverse perspectives, which are crucial for addressing these problems.

Also, as globalization brings diverse people closer together, an understanding and appreciation of cultural and historical contexts is more vital than ever in fostering empathy, reducing ethnocentrism and promoting cross-cultural dialogue.

In addition, engagement with the humanities—whether through art, history, literature, music or philosophy—can offer solace, perspective and deeper understanding of the human experience that we need today, amid our many technological distractions and a widespread sense of disconnection, anxiety, loneliness and anomie.

Then, too, as technology and science advance, the humanities offers frameworks for ethical reasoning about the moral implications of developments involving artificial intelligence, automation, genetic engineering, social media and other recent innovations. Indeed, as artificial intelligence and machine learning develop, the value of distinctly human skills—like creativity, critical and contextual thinking, emotional intelligence, and ethical reasoning—will become more valuable.

At a historical moment when democratic values and a rules-based world order seem threatened, a humanities education can not only foster a much-needed understanding and appreciation of liberal values, human rights and the even the rules of war, but civic responsibility, the value of informed debate and the importance of historical context in understanding contemporary issues.

And, perhaps most important of all, in the midst of the negativism and doomerism that surrounds us, engagement with art, history, literature, music and philosophy can enrich our lives, help us confront fundamental questions of human existence and connect us with past generations. By providing historical context and fostering an appreciation for diverse perspectives and ideas, the humanities offers the perspective we need to adapt to today’s volatile, uncertain, fraught environment.

The true value of the humanities lies not in the transferable skills it offers or its utility in the job market, but in cultivating students who are thoughtful, interesting, self-reflective and worth knowing.

Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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