What good is a humanities course?

By Peter B. Raabe, PhD

If it’s true that science and technology courses are the ones that get you the jobs, what’s the point of taking a humanities course? This was the central question under discussion at the 2nd World Humanities Forum held in Busan, Korea from November 1 to November 3. The conference was sponsored in part by UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization of Korea — under the general theme of “The Human Sciences and the Healing of Civilizations.”

Sixty-six presenters from all around the globe discussed problems faced not only by their own people, but by the entire population of the world. And the one thing all their presentations made clear is that the natural sciences, that is the scientific activity of recording and analyzing facts, is not going to give us the answers we need to solve a lot of human problems. For example, on the topic of the environment the question was asked many times, What is it that humanity values? To put it another way, as a normative question, What is it that humanity ought to value? This is not a question that science can or even wants to answer. The point of the entire conference was that there are issues that need to be addressed, and questions that need to be answered, that cannot be resolved with the empirical sciences. They can only be approached through the humanities. And that’s why the humanities are so important as part of a good education. I want to highlight just three of the sixty-five presenters:

Dr. Daniel Feierstein from Argentina, one of the world’s foremost experts on the topic of genocide, asked the audience to think about the meaning of citizenship and the aesthetic of belonging. What an odd combination of words, “the aesthetic of belonging.” What he meant was that there is a sense of beauty in feeling that one belongs to a family, a social group, or a community. But this aesthetic, this beauty is easily destroyed by means of genocide. The humanities, through a study of history, anthropology, sociology, and so on, can help the individual understand why belonging is so central to a gratifying human experience, and why genocide causes far more damage than merely the death of individuals.

Dr. Konrad Jarausch of the US talked about how simply forgetting the past, by means of a letting-bygones-be-bygones approach, is not at all in the best interest of the victims. If the perpetrators of past wrongs are not held accountable it will create a sense that wrong-doing is acceptable. This is why, even today, there are people ferreting out Nazis who are still hiding from the crimes they committed in WWII. Dr. Jarausch pointed out that the peoples of many nations still wait for the perpetrators of the atrocities against them to come forward with humility and regret for their deeds. He also emphasized the need for a knowledge of history, as well as an understanding of morality.

Desmond Egan, considered to be the premier poet of Ireland, spoke about how art — including painting, music, literature, dance, and of course poetry—can be therapeutic. These should not just be resented add-ons to an education. They ought to be central. He explained how it’s commonly believedthat to be a great artist one has to be suffering from some sort of physical or mental malady. But in fact he believed that it was art which helped many artists actually avoided greater suffering they might have had to endure if not for their art. Art is a form of healing. It has helped children suffering from wars or famine or diseases to better express, bear, and even overcome, their pain.

My own presentation was titled “Healing Words: Philosophy in the Treatment of Mental Illness.” It raised the profile of philosophy from what it is commonly believed to be—the boring and useless academic pastime of playing with words—to a form of therapy that can be used to help sufferers overcome even the most serious diagnosed mental illnesses, not to mention ordinary life problems.

The point that all presenters came back to is that the humanities shouldn’t be required to defend their existence to their university administrators. Even a cursory glance at what is taught in the humanities courses reveals that they deal with the issues far more important to human life than mere empirical facts. They deal with issues such as social transformation (democracy, justice, gender equality, industrialization, technology, health care, gay rights), globalization versus the local prosperity, knowledge creation and exchange, human rights, education, poverty and the richest 1%, militarism, colonization of small states by super powers, and art as a necessity of life. None of these topics can be adequately addressed with empirical scientific research. But all are crucial to human well-being, not to mention our survival. Plans are already underway for a third humanities conference in Korea.

For more information go to  http://www.worldhumanitiesforum.org/2012/eng/program/program.htm

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