Experiencing the Humanities

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1. Introducing the Humanities


Chapter 1 of Experiencing the Humanities by Richard Jewell



What are the humanities? They are the fine arts, culture, and philosophy. They are nonscientific, have nothing to do (at least directly) with business or economics, and they are not part of physical education or sports, either. They are the part of education, of knowledge, that makes for a more refined sense of knowing, thinking, and finer feeling. They are the ocean of all of humanity's deeper, more inner awareness, knowledge, and sensitivity.

Here is a list of subjects often covered in humanities courses:


visual art 
performing art 
sculptural art 

Why study these? The answer is that the humanities make us more human--in the very best sense of that word "human." We can, by studying what other men and women have believed, created, and understood, also become better human beings. We can learn more about ourselves and our friends and everyone who works around us. We can realize our own potentials, and the potentials of others, much more thoroughly.

How does a humanities class operate? In a general introduction like this, the class will engage you in a classic pursuit of the humanities at a scholarly level. "Classic" means, simply, that teachers have been teaching the humanities to students for thousands of years. "Scholarly" means, simply, that we will both be objective and dig deep into the subjects at hand.

This classic, scholarly pursuit means that we will come to grips with real, immediate experiences of fine arts, culture, and philosophy. We will need to feel them-- to let these experiences grip us wholly. And then we will be able to think about them, read, and then speak and write about them intelligently.

We are involved, in short, in discovering the deeper meanings of human life as it has been lived throughout the world over the history of the human race.

Here are a few examples of how one can actually engage in a pursuit of the humanities:

See a play, concert, or dance.
Attend an art or sculpture exhibition.
Go to an historical museum.
Describe one's own philosophy of life.
Create a work of art.
Study the basis of other world religions.
Experience a foreign culture for a day.
Write about such experiences before and after.
Discuss such experiences with each other.
Compare, compare, compare.

The reason "compare" is repeated on the last line directly above is to emphasize that the humanities are deeply interrelated. No one subject stands alone: for example, one cannot deeply understand a work of art like the Mona Lisa without understanding Italian history, Italian culture, perhaps even the religious and philosophical points of view of the painter and his subjects. Or, for example, we cannot gain a full understanding of the modern culture of India without also understanding its history, its religions, and its fine arts.

Everything connects with everything: this is one of the great tenets, the great beliefs, found in the study of the humanities. All life is like a spider's web: however delicately spun at times, however far apart the spaces between each light thread, everything important that humans do or can do is tied to everything else. We all live inside this web--we all are a part of a certain time in history, a certain place in American culture, a certain understanding of the arts and of philosophy and religion. As we change--as our understanding changes--we gradually throw out lines of thought to other parts of the web close to or far away from us.

And the more parts of the web we can hook ourselves up to, the more we will understand what being a human means.

If the interconnectedness of human pursuits is one great principle of humanities studies, another is the meaning to each person of being human.

We can almost imagine this question--what it means to be human--as a central core or fire inside every human being, motivating him or her to strive, to learn, to discover.

This fire is described in different ways in different humanities disciplines. In philosophy, for example, it sometimes is described as our "consciousness" or "fundamental awareness." In some religions it is known or studied as the "soul" or the "spark of divinity" in each person. In art, it is the creative unconscious, the influence of the Muses or the creative drive. In history it sometimes is discussed as the meaning or will of human drives and hopes; in language studies, the fundamental human intentions behind the words; in culture, the group identity--the group drive, wish, or hope that shapes millions of individuals' lives.

This fire inside each of us, this core, is at the very center of our own experience of the web of the humanities we can reach out to. Plato, the towering genius of early Greek philosophy 2500 years ago, said, "Know thyself." This is what studying the humanities is: a process of knowing thyself through looking at our own deepest meanings, and those of others.

It is an exciting voyage on which to embark.

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Most Recent Revision:: 24 Aug. 2002.
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Copyright 1987-1996 by Richard Jewell.
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