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Teaching the Humanities: The Benefits of Studying Human Society

Teaching the Humanities: The Benefits of Studying Human Society

By Petra DeWitt, Board Member, Missouri Humanities

At a time when it seems that public education focuses primarily on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, it becomes even more important that we do not overlook the study of human culture and society. The humanities, including art, literature, philosophy, and history are important to help us understand who we are, where we came from, and what the future may be. While science and math may offer us concrete answers to questions, the humanities reveal more nuanced conclusions and interpretations because the study of society requires not just critical thinking but also considering more than one side of a story and repeated skeptical weighing of the evidence to arrive at the truth.

Consequently, societies go through regular periods of reexamining their past. The constant analysis of human cultures and artifacts contributes to the discovery of new evidence or the revelation that someone incorrectly recorded the past for biased reasons. Take for example Richard III. For centuries people believed (and some may do so still today) that he allegedly ordered the murder of his two nephews, who supposedly were the heirs to the throne that he had taken from them. Scholarship over the last one hundred years has, however, revealed that the first scholar, or eyewitness, to write about the events was a child when the princes allegedly disappeared and later published his work under the supervision of an employee for Henry VII, the primary political opponent and successor of Richard III who also benefited from the death of the princes. Although textbooks have been slow to update the information, scholars have known for many years that Richard III was innocent of the murder charges.

Another reason that societies reexamine their past is that people constantly reevaluate how we should remember our past, especially the past that we did not experience personally. Should we rely on textbooks that have not been updated for decades? Should we rely on the monuments that our ancestors erected to honor the people that they perceived as important contributors to society? As social and cultural circumstances change over time, so do the interpretations of our past. For decades, museums have portrayed American history as “One country, one constitution, one destiny,” as Daniel Webster famously stated in 1837. Since the 1960s, however, scholars have broadened our understanding of the past by giving recognition to immigrants, African Americans, women, and Native Americans and their roles in American society. Some may see this as rewriting the past while others may define it as accepting a more inclusive history. Using the humanities to raise questions about our past contributes to healthy scrutiny of one’s society, reveals the mistakes that occurred at the hands of humans, raises social consciousness, and the lessons learned promote better citizenship.

Good speaking and writing skills that help one to effectively express one’s ideas are also at the core of the humanities and valuable in all disciplines. Communicating effectively and discussing ideas in a positive manner can lead to innovation and improvement in society rather than division and regression. As recent studies, including a 2018 Bloomberg study, have revealed, college graduates with degrees in STEM fields often are unable to construct cohesive arguments that communicate the outcome of science experiments to the public and lack critical thinking skills to evaluate trends, change, or ethics. While technology may be changing rapidly, good writing and oral communication skills will always be necessary for successful teamwork, analytical reasoning, and complex problem solving, the fundamentals for success in the workplace.

The emphasis in the sciences, engineering, and math on undisputable numbers, or the facts, also reduces the importance of doubt and skepticism, skills that the humanities emphasize. Human beings are not perfect; we change constantly. Consequently, we should question everything, especially whether something is true. Skepticism of evidence based on good research skills is essential for discovering the truth and the humanities are an excellent venue for teaching those skills. Examination of several viewpoints, not just one, is an important step. For example, we cannot understand the events during the so-called Boston Massacre unless we read a variety of reports and interview transcripts that detail the motivations of the American as well as British participants, and their diverse reasonings for why the occurrence should be or should not be called a massacre. Yet, we also need to learn that the preferred research method, the use of primary documents, such as newspapers, diaries, and letters, have their own shortcomings because they often contain biases founded on political leanings, perceived importance of events, and sense of self-importance by the correspondent.

The study of the humanities, or what it means to be human, can build a more compassionate, creative, and prosperous future. Learning art, history, literature, and philosophy broadens one’s perspectives, helps one to formulate clear arguments, and contributes to examination of values. It can also inspire individuals to become successful scientists and engineers who apply their communication and interpersonal skills to benefit and improve humanity.

Petra DeWitt is an Associate Professor in the history department at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Missouri. Her book, Degrees of Allegiance: Harassment and Loyalty in Missouri’s German-American Community during World War I won the 2012 Missouri History Book Award from the State Historical Society of Missouri.