What is the point of studying the humanities?

Poetry, philosophy, sculpture, dance, history, politics, anthropology, ethics, religion. If you have your heart set on studying any of these, chances are you’re receiving a little heat from friends and family.

They want to know what job you’ll end up doing. What will these subjects “qualify” you as? How much will you earn? What will you know how to do?

Governments and research funders often ask similar questions. Why invest time and money in the study of the humanities at universities? In a world beset by pressing social problems—crime, poverty, environmental catastrophe, unemployment, disease—surely debating deep philosophical points of view, producing music, paintings or unearthing historical writings is an indulgence, an unaffordable luxury?

A listener eavesdropping on debates in the humanities quickly becomes infuriated. There seem to be no clear answers. Arguments go around in circles. What counts for “research” seems imprecise, exploratory, open-ended. Problems are posed even when everyone knows that no clear answer will be likely to emerge. Everyone is asking questions and solutions are thin on the ground. Even more infuriatingly, no one seems at all apologetic about this.

So what is the point, exactly?

The humanities can be described as the way in which a society engages in conversation with itself. Our work is not about finding technical solutions to individual problems. We have bigger aims—to produce ethical and reflective citizens capable of adapting to change and leading in innovation because they are creative, lateral and critical thinkers.

We are interested in reading, understanding, interpreting and debating the best that has been said, written and thought about throughout human endeavour. And yes, we don’t apologise for thinking that it is quite an important thing to want to do, especially if you can learn to do it well: with insight and a heightened critical awareness. These are hard things to learn. They require excellent, enthusiastic and highly skilled teaching.

We can, if we must, put our ­usefulness into instrumental ­language. The capacities that are developed in an education in the humanities are what might be called “higher-order literacy” competencies.

The time we live in has been described as the age of “information” implying that vast quantities of information move quickly around the world and drive policies, scientific innovation, business plans, development initiatives and the like. Who would we propose should be responsible for interpreting, summarising and critically engaging with this information?

Who is competent to evaluate the sources of information, to synthesise it to render its essence, to compare and contrast it with other information and to suggest authoritatively what it all means? Who, if not the graduate of English literature, art history, political ­studies, philosophy, history or anthropology?

Knowledge is not only about technological innovation; it is also about being able to make informed choices about priorities and the impact of technology on human lives. The problem of HIV/Aids, for instance, is not simply a medical problem that will be addressed with a technical solution.

We can see from the differential impact the virus has had in differing social and political contexts that it is also a social and political problem; addressing the virus entails solutions that are informed by understanding human behaviour, political decision-making and so on.

Study in the humanities fosters understanding across barriers of race, class, gender or ethnicity. The vision of an artist, a philosopher or a historian is a special one that helps us to better understand who we are and what sort of life might be a good life to lead.

In this way the humanities can be said to reveal ourselves to ourselves through the most profound means of communication we have available—music, literature, dance, poetry and philosophy. We live in an age dominated by the demand for quick-fix solutions.

But the enormity of the problems we face, whether it be global climate change, disease or poverty, are such that not only will quick-fix solutions not work, but they will also produce further harm. So it is imperative that we attract the brightest and the best to do the work that needs to be done in the humanities. And the families and friends of those who want to make a life doing this work should be celebrating and honour that choice.

Professor Louise Vincent is the acting head of the department of political and international studies and the acting deputy dean of humanities at Rhodes University

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