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Five Minutes for the Humanities

A view from Esme Chapman, Assistant Editor for Philosophy at Palgrave Macmillan

When I was a little girl I used to ask a lot of questions. These questions covered all manner of things: Why was it fair that my sister got to go to bed later than me just because she was older? Why were my family vegetarians when other people ate meat? Why did people have different names and would I be a different person if I had a different name? Does red look the same to me as it does to you?

I think all these questions must have got pretty tiring, because when I was six my parents bought me a big book called ‘The Way Things Work’, which explains the ‘inner workings’ behind hundreds of machines and processes. I found this very disappointing indeed. To me life wasn’t about the answers but about the questions, and particularly the process of finding an answer. As far as I was concerned, the harder the question, the better. The best questions of all were the ones that were met with “Hmmmm, that’s a good question, I’m not sure I know the answer”. What interested me wasn’t an instant factual response but the possibility that, alongside a competent adult or my all-knowing big sister, I could use my imagination and thinking skills to build on what I already knew to come up with a plausible explanation.

Albert Einstein once said that “knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” To me, past and present, this is what the humanities are all about. Rather than offering some kind of vocational career preparation that arms you with all the facts, studying in the humanities is all about gaining life-long skills such as creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. Not only do these skills help us to better consider where we came from and how our world works today, but they allow us to consider past human experiences to make the best decisions for the future. In an ever more globalised world, these are important skills that will help us to relate to different cultures and outlooks and seek solutions for an improved global society.

So that’s what the humanities can do, but actually who are the humanities, and how do we define them in an academic environment? I think this is nicely summed up by the Stanford Humanities Centre, which considers that:

“The humanities can be described as the study of how people process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world”.

For some 25 centuries, the humanities have been an integral part of the education of human society. Let’s not forget them now; after all, what better outlet is there for the questioning child inside all of us?