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A Voice for the Humanities in A Divided America
Dr. Cornel West on the indifference in our society and how he thinks the humanities can help heal it
Democrats think Republicans are homophobic and white supremacists. Republicans think Democrats are borderline communists and want to kill innocent babies in the womb. Whites feel like blacks are whining about rights they actually have and blacks feel like whites are trying to suppress them. Community police officers are suddenly underground killers. We don’t even know who our neighbors are. We are the United States of America.
What our country needs now, arguably more than ever, is love and understanding. It seems that we’ve lost a connection with each other. We need to learn how to love and exemplify that love for each other and ourselves. We need to foster the capability to understand that not everyone is the same and not every story we hear on our biased news outlets is true. However, this is a bit of a task for many people in these united states of America because our society tends to turn the cheek to learning how to mentally analyze about being human and what questions to ask about the people of our country. Instead, the U.S. at large is so science-driven, favoring things that are objective and experimental – things that must be proven with numbers. Because we live in a scientific world where science is thought to be the elite area of study, it’s deemed careless to study and invest in any other method of inquiry such as the humanities, where differences in perceptions are accepted, rather than in the world of science, where they have only one concrete answer. Some even say that the humanities are the study for “dreamers.” But are they really?
Stanford University defines the humanities as “the study of how people process and document the human experience.” Branches of the humanities include studies of language, philosophy, music, history, literature, art, and religion. The studies are built upon humanistic content that emphases the goodness and potential worth of human beings, stresses our common needs, and seeks logical solutions to problems. Humanities study and reflect on our various histories and heritage, as well as our current conditions of life. Even though there are facts involved in the humanities, their concern is not in facts alone – it goes beyond that. They intend to look beyond the facts and get down to the ethics inferred in the art. The humanities teach us to recognize the ethics as well as the ways in which they are conveyed. This is the humanities’ power over science. How can science explain the human experience? Science is detached from human emotions and opinions because all it cares about are the facts. The scientific focus on symbols and numbers isn’t equal to the humanities focus on human values, because human values can be evaluated, experienced, and expressed. Science wants you to prove something to it. You can’t prove an experience, but you can tell about one.
Immortal Aspect of Humanities:
One of the most interesting, beneficial aspects of the humanities is that the information doesn’t change over time. In the world of science, new things are being discovered each day, and textbooks continue to become obsolete due to these new discoveries. But when it comes to humanities, on the other hand, think about Shakespeare, for example. Romeo and Juliet is a staple on many bookshelves today even though it was written in 1597. There have been variations of the play, but no one has even come in and wiped out the entire play because it had been “disproven.” Pieces of art and music compositions withstand the years, just like Shakespeare’s work and many other works of literature. And when it comes to history, history repeats itself.
Critics vs. Proof of How Humanities are Beneficial:
Since 2009, the United States has decreased their funding for the arts and humanities. Critics of the humanities say the studies are lacking cultural and economic significance. They say the humanities have no purpose and suggest that during economic depressions, resources shouldn’t be spent on studying the human condition. In January 2013, North Carolina’s governor Patrick McCrory said that he “planned to change the state’s legislation on higher education funding so that ‘it’s not based on butts in seat but on how many of those butts can get jobs.’ McCroy did not want taxpayers to subsidize subject that did not seem to lead directly to students securing a job” (Tworek). However, it is people of the humanities who are actually giving significance to cultures. And in 2012, a survey of the 652 U.S. born Chief Executive Officers and Heads of Product Engineering showed almost 60% had degrees in the humanities (Rice).
Explain why do we need Humanities? How are they so beneficial?:
So what does this mean? I think this is just a snippet of evidence that proves how important the study of humanities is. We need the humanities simply because we are humans. Studying the humanities teaches you the importance of your life, your neighbor’s life, and everyone else’s life around you. Studying the way we humans think and feel is a direct way to gain compassion and understanding for the people around us. We are far more complicated and finely different than we tend to believe at a face value, and it is because of these distinctions and variations being so precise, that we need better research, graphs, and data based work that depicts our individual lives. Science and the humanities function in entirely different ways and also study different things. Science studies the physical world and how different groups/classes/species act by themselves and with one another, while humanities studies the inner part of the self and the ways it distinguishes things and works. Helen E. Longino, a Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University, has a book out where she asserts, “the limitations of behavioral research are not clearly communicated in academic or popular discourse. As a result, this lack of communication distorts the scope of current behavioral research” (Wilcox). What goes beyond typical scientific research that has a hypothesis, proposal, and conclusion, is learning how humans work. By simply being with each other and interacting with each other, we learn how the human species differs. The humanities promote equality and social justice. Without them, our democracy could not thrive. They teach compassion and “they teach us to weigh evidence skeptically and consider more than one side of every question” (Rice). People who study the humanities and learn these things end up coming out as analytical and well-versed members of society. In fact, many current employers in America are seeking skills that humanities students possess. Employers “want critical thinking and analytical reasoning. [They] want employees to analyze and solve complex problems. [They] want employees to connect choices to ethical decisions” (Rice). Humanities don’t teach us what to do, but how to be.
Introducing Dr. West; Humanities and Race & Culture:
Today, our country has deep-seated conflicts that are generating a need for the humanities. One of these conflicts is the war on race and culture. A prominent face in the scheme of civil rights activism that is dealing with this racial phenomena is Dr. Cornel West. Dr. West is a Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University in just three years, and then earned his Masters and Doctorate degrees in Philosophy at Princeton University. Put directly, he’s a smart man. When Coastal Carolina University had their opening celebration of the Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies, Dr. West came and gave a speech. In his speech, he described our current society as a “hybrid culture,” meaning that we are all mixed with more than one ethnicity. None of us are purely “black nor “white”; the trail of ethnicity that each of us has is long and winding. Because of this hybridity, there are often people with an ambiguous ethnicity that cannot be simplified down to a reified category in a Census box. Even though the whole idea of “race” is a power structure that has been socially constructed, we still allow it to administer us our identities.
Dr. West declared that our country needs a kind of moral awakening that he said could be studied and learned in the humanities. One focal point he talked about was how the humanities place so much focus on our culture and the people within our culture. The job of the humanities is partly to help us understand the function culture plays in each and every one of our lives. He said, “The humanities is precisely equipped to do that...to shatter our narrow assumption, to get us to muster the courage to speak clearly enough to each other and ourselves in such a way that we can engage in a formation of attention.” In his speech, Dr. West was praising how students in the humanities are examining the things going on around them and not just observing them, but critiquing them.
Humanities are helpful here because they critically investigate the structure of power. When this happens, the people of America should then be able to respectfully exchange their perspectives and opinions about human traditions and values. This change is necessary because of all the division that is going on in our country regarding race. Dr. West talks about fixing racism in his writing, “Race Matters.” He proposes how “capture a new spirit and vision” and fix the issue of racism in America by “[grasping] the complex dynamics of our peoplehood” and focusing on “the public square – the common good that undergirds our national and global destinies. The vitality of the public square ultimately depends on how much we care about the quality of our lives together” (266).
Digital Humanities & the Public Square:
The humanities work in this idea of the public square in our contemporary moment by evolving into what is now know as “digital humanities.” Defining digital humanities, according to the City University of New York, is “a project in itself” because some people believe that “the term is too expansive to be useful” (Defining the Digital). However, Wikipedia takes a stab at defining it, saying it is “an area of scholarly activity at the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities.” The concept of digital humanities is so radical because it’s this kind of explosion of information through technology that consists of digital texts, digital records, digital reflections, etc. Humanities merging with the digital, forms an alliance where in order to do humanistic research, a person will seek research through technology. However, technology is also at the mercy of human questioning and investigating.
Even before the creation of digital humanities and its seemingly endless world of information, the humanities were already being used to understand and record our world. Humanities give us access to records of different human experiences so that we can feel a connection based on the level of relatability, or non-relatability. Either way, there is a sense of association that is formed, whether the person came before us or is in our same world. Digital humanities shows the world how it is being constructed all around us with data. It shows that universal groupings are not just inescapable, but the effect of specific setups of power. This connection/association to others is the public square.
Dr. West & Self-Examination:
In his speech, Dr. West stated that the humanities possess many constructive elements such as being able to comprehend this hybridity of America, but the benefits don’t stop there. He continued on, praising the humanities students’ ability to examine their individual self as well as the world around them. He said, “[T]here’s no growth, there’s no development, there’s no maturation without learning how to critically examine your assumptions and presumptions, your prejudgments and your prejudices.” Examining the dark corners of the self requires courage because it requires being brave enough to unveil the truth of the soul, but Dr. West declares that doing this makes you “intensely alive.” This inward turn to study the self tends to reveal a kind of mystery about identity that goes hand-in-hand with the truth within and around you. Dr. West believes that once you are able to examine yourself and question your presumptions and assumptions and why they are there, you can become a different kind of person – a different kind of person for the better. In a video interview with Dr. West, titled “Examined Life,” the first thing Dr. West says is a quote from Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Introspection is essential. However in America’s culture, self-examination is often overlooked because “weapons of mass distraction,” as Dr. West calls them, surround us and are being crammed into our brains. These “weapons” are superficial things such as our reputation and image, rather than issues of sustenance like what kind of person are we? Or, how are our relationships with the people around us who matter to us? In Dr. West’s speech, he called for everyone to ask themselves this question: What are you going to do with what you have here in your space and time?
Our country needs the study of the humanities because being human itself is one thing we all have in common. All of us need love, have a sense of morals, and are going to die one day. And these are just a few things we share. We need a study that will bring us together and also help us get closer to ourselves. The people of the humanities should be applauded for their desire to investigate and understand the power constructs that society has created. There are a number of tensions in America that pose a big challenge to fix, but I am certain that there is a kind of intervention that could abate the problem – and I believe the humanitarians among us could very well spearhead this. Even though the humanities are already doing a good job of critically engaging in the current issues of our culture, they’ve got to look further than where they currently are, and make judgments off of things more precise than just the data based work that inaccurately depicts our lives. Like Dr. West instructs, we must have the courage to think, courage to love, and courage to hope. Only then, will we be able to understand the certain kind of mystery that accompanies truth.