Why the Humanities Matter


A former student of mine, whose husband has been living with a brain tumor for over a decade, highly values the science and technology that keeps her husband alive, but when asked how she copes day-to-day in this world, she talks about catharsis and the crucial role of the humanities:

“In 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson lost his 5-year old son,” my former student said. “His poem about the loss, ‘Threnody,’ provides me a waypoint for my own struggles. Across time, Emerson reaches out and helps me navigate through the desolation.

“Another work, the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh,’ comforts me when I sit in the intensive care unit listening to my husband breathe and hoping he will continue to breathe another day. Gilgamesh’s solitary vigil with Enkidu’s body shows me that over 4,000 years ago, someone felt what I feel today.”

This experience of catharsis — the purifying and purgation of emotion, first described by Aristotle — is one of the most profound gifts of the humanities. It is real and transformative. Catharsis heightens our understanding of the world; it redirects and improves our ways of thinking and understanding; it enhances our ability to reflect upon our lives and the lives of others.

People very much like us, and yet not like us at all, have existed on this planet and have generously preserved and shared literatures, histories, artifacts, languages, laws, cultural practices, religions, and philosophies. These convey first-hand the depths of worlds outside our own limited universe, the complex emotions of differing beings, and the moral and ethical questions that drive the conscience and logic of a time. The humanities honors and preserves this material. Study of the humanities teaches us to exercise the reflection, communication, analysis and interpretation necessary to understand these words, artifacts and cultural practices from a multitude of perspectives.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. provide a lens into a life worth living when he writes, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individual concerns to the broader concerns of humanity.” The humanities offer a diverse set of lenses for looking at the world, lenses that enable us to develop empathy, compassion, and connection.

The humanities provide us with ways to frame the current real world, as well as ways to engage with this world as valuable citizens. Study of the humanities empowers us to apply ourselves rigorously in this world, to work at being present and productive, and to contribute to humanity by making meaning where there sometimes seems to be none. The humanities ultimately provide refuge for us in our darkest times and helps us understand what it means to be merely, and significantly, human. MB


Renée Curry is a professor in the Division of Humanities and Communication at CSU Monterey Bay.  


Photo by Randy Tunnell