Who Needs the Humanities?

Authors_photo1 Steve Fuller in Project Syndicate:

We need the humanities only if we are committed to the idea of humanity. If the humanities have become obsolete, then it may be that humanity is losing its salience.

I do not mean that we are becoming “less human” in the sense of “inhumane.” If anything, we live in a time when traditionally human-centered concerns like “rights” have been extended to animals, if not nature as a whole. Rather, the problem is whether there is anything distinctive about being human that makes special demands of higher education. I believe that the answer continues to be yes.

Today, it sounds old-fashioned to describe the university’s purpose as being to “cultivate” people, as if it were a glorified finishing school. However, once we set aside its elitist history, there remains a strong element of truth to this idea, especially when applied to the humanities. Although we now think of academic disciplines, including the humanities, as being “research-led,” this understates the university’s historic role in converting the primate Homo sapiens into a creature whose interests, aspirations, and achievements extend beyond successful sexual reproduction.

What was originally called the “liberal arts” provided the skills necessary for this transformation.