Experiencing the Humanities
by Richard Jewell
What are the humanities? They are the fine arts, culture, and philosophy. They are nonscientific, have nothing to do (at least directly) with business or economics, and they are not part of physical education or sports, either. They are the part of education, of knowledge, that makes for a more refined sense of knowing, thinking, and finer feeling. They are the ocean of all of humanity's deeper, more inner awareness, knowledge, and sensitivity.
Connecting the Humanities with Ourselves
Here is a list of subjects often covered in humanities courses:
Why study these? The answer is that the humanities make us more human--in the very best sense of that word "human." We can, by studying what other men and women have believed, created, and understood, also become better human beings. We can learn more about ourselves and our friends and everyone who works around us. We can realize our own potentials, and the potentials of others, much more thoroughly.
How does a humanities class operate? In a general introduction like this, the class will engage you in a classic pursuit of the humanities at a scholarly level. "Classic" means, simply, that teachers have been teaching the humanities to students for thousands of years. "Scholarly" means, simply, that you will both be objective and dig deeply into the subjects at hand.
This classic, scholarly pursuit means that we will come to grips with real, immediate experiences of fine arts, culture, and philosophy. We will need to feel them-- to let these experiences grip us wholly. And then we will be able to think about them, read, and then speak and write about them intelligently.
We are involved, in short, in discovering the deeper meanings of human life as it has been lived throughout the world over the history of the human race.
Here are a few examples of how one can actually engage in a pursuit of the humanities:
See a play, concert, or dance.
Attend an art or sculpture exhibition.
Go to an historical museum.
Describe one's own philosophy of life.
Create a work of art.
Examine an ancient or current myth or fairy tale.
Study the basis of a different world religion.
Experience a foreign culture for a day.
Write about such experiences before and after.
Discuss such experiences with each other.
The reason "compare" is repeated on the last line above is to emphasize that the humanities are deeply interrelated. No one subject stands alone: for example, one cannot deeply understand a work of art like the famous Mona Lisa without understanding Italian history, Italian culture, perhaps even the religious and philosophical points of view of the painter and his subjects. Or, for example, we cannot gain a full understanding of the modern culture of India without also understanding its history, its religions, and its fine arts.
Everything connects with everything: this is one of the great tenets, the great beliefs, found in the study of the humanities. All life is like a spider's web: however delicately spun at times, however far apart the spaces between each thread, everything important that humans do or can do is tied to everything else. We all live inside this web--we all are a part of a certain time in history, a certain place in American culture, a certain understanding of the arts and of philosophy and religion. As we change--as our understanding changes--we gradually throw out lines of thought to other parts of the web close to or far away from us.
And the more parts of the web to which we are able to connect ourselves--to hook into--the more we will understand what being a human means.
What is "Being Human"?
If the interconnectedness of human pursuits is one great principle of humanities studies, another is the meaning to each person of "being human." Being human means, simply, that all individuals and the cultures in which they exist experience a rise in personal and cultural improvement as they gradually improve their basics of life. As a person--and as a culture through history--people gradually develop more than enough food to eat, better health, more clean water, safer places to sleep and live, and enough trade to allow extra personal time each day. And as people develop more personal time, they seek greater learning, more entertainment, and more self-discovery. This is why there are remarkable similarities, sometimes, among early civilizations and their people throughout the world on the one hand, and our own times on the other hand: some civilizations had more personal time. It is why, especially, those who were rich--usually rulers--in older times had households, habits, and learning similar to those of our middle classes today. As people rise above their basic needs, so does their culture.
There is, in fact, evidence of many modern cultural achievements from earlier times, sometimes even from surprisingly ancient times. Recent evidence from archeologists (people who dig for and study ancient cultures) suggests that the beginnings of human tool making--and therefore basic human thinking may be much earlier than scientists once thought: perhaps as early as 2.4 million years ago. An archeological dig (a scientific examination of layer after layer of earth, revealing ancient towns and other sites--as in the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark and others in the same franchise) discovered about 250 sharp-edged stone tools and, with them, a group of animal bones, fossilized, that had cut marks on them. This ancient discovery of a likely site of butchering animals for the meet occurred in Algeria, northwest Africa.
If humans were using tools that long ago, when did they start becoming civilized. Scientists now believe that this happened--that humans were thinking, feeling, and living with modern brains--at least 40,000 years ago, perhaps tens of thousands of years earlier. This means that if a pregnant woman from those times could be somehow magically transported to our time, had modern health care, and gave birth to a perfectly healthy baby, that baby would have the ability to become just as modern and intelligent as we are.
Some of the greatest literature the world has known was developed originally in writing three and four thousand years ago, and even earlier than that by thousands of years more from oral storytelling. In oral storytelling traditional storytellers pass down memorized stories through each generation. This kind of cultural literacy started long before writing existed. The same is true for ancient forms of music, long-ago religions, and even types of psychology and medicine. As a result, political and cultural ways of existing started back then and still, in some of their ancient forms, are used in the world today.
Modern historians can, for example, point to a belief in a single God above all other gods--that is, to older forms of monotheism--in a number of cultures throughout the world over many thousands of years. Historians also are able to show that democracies have existed in various smaller communities, in city states, and even in countries at different times in the past several thousand years. This likely was true in many communities especially in very ancient times, when villages and towns were organized more by matriarchal control with direct democratic decisions made by most adults. In fact, the very feminist movements of toward toward more equality and power for women once did exist for thousands of years in ancient matriarchal cultures. The present often reflects our past, and our past becomes our future.
How Do Past and Present Really Connect?
While STEM--science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--are not disciplines usually covered in the discipline of the humanities, certainly the cultural conditions and results--in thinking and society--from ancient STEM also are important. In fact, as one example of the importance of STEM in understanding the humanities is an ancient computer-clock.
In about 30 BCE (BC), a Roman merchant ship sank near the Greek island of Antikythera. Onboard were high-quality statues, pottery, and other items probably being shipped for sale. One of the items recovered was a device with gears now called the Antikythera Mechanism. The device has a number of plates and gears that interlock. Each gear moved on its own, turned by the others, with exact cuts for the teeth. Nothing like it would exist, at least in the West, until about 1500 CE (AD). The gears appear--with more to be discovered yet, possibly--to have told time using different cycles including sun, moon, solar and lunar eclipses, and even the dates for the ancient Olympics. Until this device was recovered, no one knew how much the Romans were aware of precise data about solar and lunar timelines.
Imagine how much more the Roman engineers and mathematicians could have done if they had then discovered how to generate electricity. The kind of culture that supported and sustained the development and use of this computer-like clock, if it had lasted a few hundred years more, might have changed Western history. It could have jumped over the Middle Ages or medieval period and gone directly to the Renaissance to the West, perhaps a thousand years earlier.
Other advanced STEM examples from ancient times include financing and mathematics. Many highly accurate financial accounting systems exist from around the world thousands of years ago on tablets (and in fact accounting tablets are among the very earliest preserved forms of writing). Even a possible high-level mathematical table of trigonometry exists, three thousand years ahead of our time. Much of Rome and its outlying cities had clean running water, ancient Hindu and Egyptian scrolls show widely traveled traders and scholars, and similar mythologies and physical symbols suggest more contact between ancient civilizations than we once thought was possible. In medieval times, the study of mathematics reached its height in Muslim parts of Spain and North Africa, equaled only in our modern times; and in medieval religious orders throughout the world, ancient manuscripts, both religious and nonreligious, were saved and copied for centuries, only to be rediscovered during the renaissance or later.
It is important to note that in the humanities disciplines themselves--philosophy, history, social and cultural knowledge, and the arts--modern STEM discoveries were not necessary for great advancements and great enrichment. Thus it is logical to argue that in some of these ways, in the paths of the humanities, ancient thinkers and artists were as bright, innovative, and capable as many of our contemporary thinkers and artists.
In addition, our modern cultures have been able to gather and make use of all these many centuries of innovations in thought and the arts, sustain them, and continue to grow with them throughout history. In fact, many of our modern elements of culture came from older, sometimes even ancient cultures. And the individuals who lived in many of those older times and places were as intelligent, sensitive, and driven by curiosity as are we.
If humans past and present throughout the world are united to some degree in their humanity, what, indeed, does it mean to be human? What did it mean then, and what does it mean now?
The Fire Inside Each of Us
We can almost imagine this question as a central core or fire inside every human being, motivating him or her to strive, to learn, to discover. And when enough of these individuals strive together, their entire culture is lifted up, whether for a moment in history or a thousand years.
This fire is described in different ways in different humanities disciplines. In philosophy, for example, it sometimes is described as our "consciousness" or "fundamental awareness." In some religions it is known or studied as the "soul" or the "spark of divinity" in each person. In art, it is the creative unconscious, the influence of the Muses, or the creative drive. In history it sometimes is discussed as the meaning or will of human drives and hopes; in language studies, the fundamental human intentions behind the words; in culture, the group identity--the group drive, wish, or hope that shapes millions of individuals' lives.
This fire inside each of us, this core, is at the very center of our own experience of the web of the humanities for which we yearn, hope, and reach. Socrates and Plato, two towering geniuses of early Greek philosophy 2500 years ago, said, "Know thyself." This statement itself has several levels of meaning by these two philosophers. However, clearly, one very important meaning is that we as human beings, both as individuals and as a whole society, can learn more about our place in the universe. This is what studying the humanities is: a process of "knowing thyself"--by looking at both our own deepest meanings and those of others.
It is an exciting voyage on which to embark.
*Image in chapter title: The Bull Leapers Fresco. Attributed to Emile Gilliéron père. Excavated 1091 in the Court of the Stone Spout, Knossos [Greece] (ca. 1425-1300 BCE). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Textbook URL: http://www.umn.edu/home/jewel001/humanities/book/0contents
Most Recent Revision:: 22 Jan. 2020.
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Copyright 1987-2019 by Richard Jewell.
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