What is the value of studying humanities?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This question is bound to generate a great deal of thought.  This might be the ultimate testament to the value of studying the humanities in that it represents the essence of the lifelong learner and the life devoted to scholarship. 

The interaction with "L"iterature of a high caliber as well as being able to write and think about ideas that form the basis of the human experience constitutes the greatest value in the study of the humanities.  The essence of what it means to be "human" comes out of "humanities."  In a recent New York Times Op- Ed piece, Verlyn Klinkenborg identified this as the value in studying the humanities:  "Studying the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience."  The ultimate value in studying high quality literature, analyzing and discussing its implications, and writing about it is its own reward.  The humanities represents the pursuit of scholarship that has endured for oceans of time.  It is not reduced to a salary or a vocational experience. The humanities seeks to broaden what it means to be human, transforming those who come into contact with it.

In a world where job prospects are shrinking and where the marketplace is as fluid as possible, the natural tendency is to move away from the humanities.  Parents' fears of "What will you do with that?" and student fears' that are exacerbated with "What am I going to do with this?" have helped to construct the humanities as something irrelevant.  Elected leaders advocate students to "be a plumber" if they are not sure of what to do or how to pursue it.  Yet, I think that a world in which there are more questions than answers, more sources for insecurity and doubt than sanctuaries from them, and conditions of being that are more unknown than ever necessitates the study of the humanities. The humanities helps to articulate what others before have experienced and seeks to make clear the increasingly challenging quotient of what it means to be a human being.  It is here in which the humanities' value can be best seen:

What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature...No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.

To be in possession of this "inheritance," if only for a fleeting moment and if only to articulate one's own condition in the world, is where the ultimate value in studying the humanities lies.

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