If you have a certain sort of question, then studying the Humanities is really the only option.

downloadThe other day, I was reading this fairly mediocre article on why studying the humanities is important, and then I clicked through to a link on the bottom of the page that led to a previously published article that had already dissected and discarded the claims of the first article I’d read.

My favorite part was this:

But if you read the people making cases for them, you begin to suspect things are actually pretty dire. If the people making a case for the Humanities can’t make a case for the Humanities, the discipline is really up a creek. Chug through the 92 pages and you come out grasping nothing in your hand.

There are numerous studies that imply that drinking a glass of red wine daily is good for your long-term health. But that is not why you drink a glass of wine. If what you are really interested in is long-term health, the thing to do is go for a jog and eat an onion sandwich, take three vitamins and go to bed.

That’s exactly right. If what’s important about the humanities is that they teach you critical reasoning, then just teach that. A class in logic would be more useful than one in English. If what’s useful is that they make you articulate, then don’t teach history–teach rhetoric and debate.

The Humanities are not important because of the skills they give you. Those skills can be acquired elsewhere, much more cheaply. They’re interesting because, well, what else is there?

If you want to gain traction on any kind of question of value, then all you have is the humanities. If you want to know what beauty is, then all you can do is study art (although I figure that science will at least crack aesthetics someday =). If you want to know how to live your life, then all you can do is study moral philosophy and literature. If you want to learn about how people should relate to each other, then you study political philosophy.

It kind of sucks, because the humanities don’t offer much in the way of answers. There are no answers. That’s exactly why these questions can’t be analyzed by science. And yet, and yet, these are all questions that you need to answer, if you’re going to live in the world. Refusing to answer them is not an option. You either, in some way, address the basis for how a person should live, or you simply accept the answers that society has given you. It’s an impossible trap.

If you can get by without studying the humanities, then that’s great. I see no special reason to encourage people to study them. But if you have a certain sort of need, then studying them is really the only option.