Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Humanity not Humanities

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Only through the humanities can we prepare leaders of empathy, imagination, and understanding—responsive and responsible leaders who embrace complexity and diversity.
Peter Solovey, President of Yale

I beg to differ.

Beautiful as the humanities are, this quote gives them far more credit than they deserve. 

I think if we replaced “the humanities” with “interacting deeply with different others with humanity”, it might fit.

Sure, you can gain empathy through reading the points of view of others and feeling what they feel through novels and music and film. But that is nothing like living for an extended period of time with people different from yourself and experiencing their joy and suffering. 

Sure, you can gain imagination vicariously by studying the humanities, but you can also become better at imagination if you develop a close friendship with someone whose culture is extremely different from your own and try to learn to see the world through their lens.

Understanding, responsive, responsible leaders do not learn any of this by studying it. They learn it by living it. By experiencing it. You do not understand, respond and become responsible for something you study in college or elsewhere. You become that by enacting it and perhaps reflecting on it in an academic environment – but you don’t develop it there unless that environment encourages you to live those experiences. 

Humanity is not the purview of the humanities. It should pervade all our learning and all our behavior. Nurses need to be empathetic and I don’t think they need humanities to develop this – they just need someone to get out of their way and allow them to have human emotions even as they learn to become professional caregivers. Computer scientists need to be empathetic, to better create things that meet the needs of other people – and I don’t know how the humanities can help with that, but I do know how working closely with other people can. Political scientists need to be responsive (God, do they need to be responsive!) but that comes from dialogue with people, not by studying humanities. 

This is not at all a rant against the humanities. I think the humanities inspire a great deal of beauty and enrich our lives and hearts and minds and souls in so many ways. I can’t live without them. But I don’t think any course of study itself achieves any of those things the president of Yale is suggesting. I think all of those things develop with human experience, and you don’t need to be a humanist to do that.

Unless I have misunderstood something. Please enlighten me. I am objecting to the “only through the humanities” (historically theoretical disciplines which I believe can promote all of these things but that they are not sufficient nor necessary in themselves for this, whereas deep interaction with “other” human beings is necessary – but probably not sufficient – for this)

3 Comments

  1. Interesting post as always, Maha. I’m thinking that the humanities’ statement is perhaps in defense against students choosing non-humanities subjects (as the majority of our students do after they finish school; they used to mainly choose medicine and law but now more and more commerce) and a justification against opinions that humanities studies are useless – which I hear again and again.
    Recently I attended a 3 Minute Thesis event along with a few of our students and their teacher. PhD academics had to explain their thesis in lay terms and in an engaging way to the audience, and there was a winner with money prize. Most of the presentations were from the science field and one of them was an investigation about synesthesia and music. I voted for that one because of the way it was presented. The teacher with me said he had a hard time voting for any money to go towards useless research (I’m paraphrasing; he wasn’t rude about it). He didn’t see any non-practical research as valuable. That might be what prompts these claims from humanities faculties. I don’t know.

    • I understand the need to defend the humanities

    • I understand why humanities folks feel the need to defend themselves. But that statement that empathy etc can only be developed via humanities is kind of ridiculous, attributing more to the study humanities than it can really do vs practicing humanity… You can cry reading a book and feel empathy all you like but it’s nowhere near living that experience with someone

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