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Five Minutes for the Humanities

A view from Ben Doyle, Commissioning Editor for Literature at Palgrave Macmillan

I don’t think it’s too grand a claim to say that the humanities matter because they teach us about the world at large and the people that we share it with. They offer insight into human experience in all its endless variety, from the concrete to the metaphysical, and simultaneously provide us with tools to understand the world whilst shaping the way in which we do so. They teach us different languages and enable us to communicate transculturally in a common tongue. They teach us about beauty, empathy and the nature of truth, and gift us great novels, breathtaking paintings and rousing concertos. They teach us about the past: about acts of great kindness and about acts of great evil, about the fall of kings and the ascension of despots, and about the lives of people long since gone, both grand and unremarkable. In doing so, we are not merely learning about the past but also the future – what to expect, how to live, and what mistakes to avoid.

In short, the humanities equip people with the skills to establish common ground, whether through language, reason or a mutual appreciation of beauty, be it in music, art or literature. Such commonalities enable us to communicate and co-exist more harmoniously and help us to better understand the other people with whom we share this planet. Atticus Finch, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, said that “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them”, and to me the most important skill that the humanities gives us is the ability to do just that.