The Value of the Humanities

The humanities add meaning to the most profound moments of our lives, but they also bear burdens—notably, the myth that their study is inconsistent with a practical and prosperous career.

Experience shows us otherwise.

Keen students of the humanities can think critically and analytically. They express themselves persuasively in speech and writing (often in more than one language), empathize, mobilize diverse individuals and talents in teamwork and problem-solving, and boldly range outside the box as leaders in education, business, economics, law, and media.

For those students (and parents) still uncertain about the value of the humanities in higher education, here are a few points to consider.

What are the humanities?
These academic disciplines include languages, literature, history, religion, culture, philosophy, the arts, and related fields. Social sciences such as psychology and sociology are often studied alongside the humanities. The parent of the humanities is philosophy (from Greek, “the love of wisdom”). Fasten your seat belt for a lightning-fast review of the five philosophical questions, so named because each new generation of learners in the humanities grapples with these big questions:

  • What is real? (metaphysics)
  • How do we know what we know? (epistemology)
  • What is good or bad, right or wrong? (ethics)
  • What constitutes artistic beauty? (aesthetics)
  • How do we understand the nature and existence of a divine being? (philosophy of religion)

These big questions touch every aspect of our lives, and the answers reveal what it means to be human. It’s been said, “The aim of liberal arts is to apprehend the lights and shades of knowledge.” The beauty of the humanities is that each of us is at liberty to answer the questions above according to our own “lights”. Liberal arts schools committed to broad-based learning affirm the inherent value of the humanities with their resources, requirements, and missions.

Discovering humanity in the humanities
 The humanity in the humanities emerges as we go about our lives. Our momentous personal events, the prime entrances and exits, triumphs and tragedies, are marked by language and values owing to the humanities. We typically use language to express what matters most to us. Language can be heroic: “Lay down the burden of hate, for hate is a burden to heavy to bear” (US Rep. John Lewis); educational: “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away” (Emily Dickinson); romantic: “May your love be as enthusiastic as a boxful of puppies” (Unknown). The humanities are alive, and we practice them every day.

Practical (and prosperous) applications
True to the liberal arts tradition, humanities students add breadth to their understanding (and résumés) through studies in science, technology, and business, along with engagement in all manner of professional settings. In his compelling book, There Is Life After College, Jeffrey Selingo details the qualities that well-rounded young professionals should cultivate for success: “curiosity, creativity, grit, digital awareness, contextual thinking, and humility.” While There Is Life After College is not primarily about the humanities, the qualities (or virtues) Selingo encourages fit so snugly with the humanities that old Aristotle would be proud.

Research opportunities
Forward-looking postsecondary institutions implement programs that engage students in timely, meaningful undergraduate research. These studies often incorporate service learning and sustainability and can launch students into graduate or professional school and relevant professions. It is hard to measure the confidence, growth, and downright joy that college students derive from such project-based, collaborative learning. The future is in good hands with robust undergraduate programs like the following, which include the humanities and social sciences among practical and society-enhancing student research spanning academic disciplines:

Could practicing the humanities make us more humane?
We’ve already seen the academic, personal, and practical value of the humanities. Could practicing the humanities also help us be more humane, better people? The late Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood gave a memorable answer at the 1997 Emmys when he received a Lifetime Achievement Award “on behalf of millions of children whose mornings you have brightened with kindness.” Mr. Rogers exhorted, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being.” Take 10 seconds, said Mr. Rogers, “to think about those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.” When all is said and done, Mr. Rogers’ gentle yet powerful words remind us of the height of our humanity: Love your neighbor.


NACAC member Bryan Rutledge serves as director of college counseling at Woodward Academy (GA).