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.

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 to which we are able to connect ourselves--to hook into--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. Being human means that all individuals and the cultures in which they exist experience a rise in personal and cultural improvement as they gradually improve their basics of life. As a person--and a culture gradually develop more than enough food to eat, better health, more clean water, safer places to sleep and live, and enough trade to allow extra personal time each day, the more they seek greater learning, more entertainment, and more self-discovery. This is why there are remarkable similarities, sometimes, among early civilizations and peoples throughout the world and our own times. It is why those who were rich--usually rulers--in older times had households, habits, and learning similar to those of our middle classes today. As people rise above their basic needs, so does their culture. 

There is, in fact, evidence of many modern cultural achievements from earlier, sometimes even ancient times. We have evidence that modern human beings probably began thinking, feeling, and living at least 40,000 years ago, perhaps tens of thousands of years earlier, the babies of which, had they been nurtured in the womb and then born into our own times, would be just as modern and intelligent as we are. Some of the greatest literatures the world has known were developed originally in writing three and four thousand years ago, and even earlier than that by hundreds or thousands of years from oral storytelling: a tradition of storytellers passing down memorized stories through each generation long before writing existed.

Modern historians can point to a belief in a single God above all others--to older versions of monotheism--in a number of cultures throughout the world over many thousands of years. They also are able to show that democracies have existed in various smaller communities, in city states, and even in countries at different times in the past several thousand years. This likely was true in some communities especially in very ancient times when villages and towns were organized more by matriarchal control with direct democratic decisions made by most adults.

In science and technology, some commonalties between modern, medieval, and ancient peoples also exist. Modern researchers have examples of what might have been a mechanical clock from ancient Greece. Many highly accurate financial accounting systems exist from around the world thousands of years ago on tablets. Even a possible high-level mathematical table of trigonometry exists, which was three thousand years ahead of its time. Much of Rome and its outlying cities had clean running water, ancient Hindu and Egyptian scrolls show widely traveled traders and scholars, and similar mythologies and physical symbols suggest more contact between ancient civilizations than we once thought was possible. In medieval times, the study of mathematics reached its height in Muslim parts of Spain and North Africa, equaled only in our modern times; and in medieval religious orders throughout the world, ancient manuscripts, both religious and nonreligious, were saved and copied for centuries, only to be rediscovered during the renaissance or later.

Our modern cultures have been able, of course, to gather all such cultural innovations, sustain them, and continue to grow with them in a way unprecedented in written history. However, many of our modern elements of culture came from older, even sometimes ancient cultures. And the individuals who lived in many of these older times and places were as intelligent, sensitive, and driven by curiosity as are we.

If humans past and present throughout the world are united to some degree in their humanity, what, indeed, does it mean to be human, then and now?

We can almost imagine this question as a central core or fire inside every human being, motivating him or her to strive, to learn, to discover. And when enough of these individuals strive together, their entire culture is lifted up, whether for a moment in history or a thousand years.

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 for which we yearn, hope, and reach. 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:: 18 Sept. 2017.
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Copyright 1987-2017 by Richard Jewell.
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