In order to define Humanities, I think it is helpful to define what does not fall under Humanities. I divide up the academic disciplines into categories: Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities.
I will define Humanities by exploring the similarities and differences between Social Sciences and Humanities, as Social Sciences are the closest parallel to Humanities. While both use empirics, Social Sciences use scientific approaches to examine human society and interactions, while Humanities relies more on critical and analytical approaches. What makes Humanities distinct from Social Sciences is its focus on human experiences to analyze society, culture, and interactions. Humanities is also an academic discipline, which means it must focus on the delivering of information from one person to another. So, I define Humanities as:
The academic study that observes, uncovers, and filters the human experience and teaches it to others.
The specific wording of this definition will become clearer later in this essay, but for now it is important to understand that Humanities studies the human experience.
The issue with Humanities is that there is no right answer for what it means to be human or what humanity is. Because the human experience is completely subjective, Humanities can only discover patterns, and the absolute truth about human experience can only be found in individual experiences and cannot be applied to all of humanity. In the first unit of the Humanities class, we explored scholars’ beliefs on what fundamental rights humans had. John Locke argued that all humans have the right to life, liberty, and property, while Karl Marx critiqued Locke’s idea of property, arguing that it was a learned, capitalist concept, not a fundamental right. In unit two we examined how human experience is shaped by conceptual frameworks. Frameworks, like language or religious beliefs, determine what knowledge is considered valuable, therefore affecting how we view the world. These paradigms shape our actions and thoughts while providing diversity in the human experience, because groups of people have different frames of reference in which they see the world. In one of our lectures, we had a panel of three linguists discuss how language can shape value. Because languages are the way that we explain our human experiences to other people, different languages have different ways of molding the human experience. For example, in German, the word schadenfreude is best translated to taking joy/pleasure from other’s misfortunes. In English, there is no singular word for this, because taking pleasure from other’s misfortunes is not something that is highlighted in the American experience.
Another part of the human experience the Humanities attempts to understand is who is left out from the definition of human. In units three and four, we examined cases of violence and segregation, attempts to exclude certain populations from the definition of human. In unit three we explored the Rwandan genocide, and how the Hutus excluded the Tutsis from their definition of human, and how it allowed them to commit genocide. The racialized propaganda promoted by Hutu leaders fundamentally removed all humanity from the Tutsis. In unit four we examined the civil rights era and how black Americans used non-violent movements to push for inclusion in the definition of human. Although previously excluded from fully becoming human with the idealization of whiteness and segregation, Black Americans moved to eliminate de jure and de facto inequality. The civil rights movement was fundamentally about humanizing black Americans, because it was a movement to guarantee all races access to the fundamental rights humans receive under the constitution.
So, what is the distinction between Humanities and the humanities?
In one of President Quillen’s lectures, she discussed the role of history and how the academics who study history often become the ones who write it. Because history can never capture the full extent of all of the interweaving stories and experiences and events that happened before us, history becomes the stories that academics find the most interesting. President Quillen used a diagram to explain how history gets distilled down into a fraction of its reality that I believe is applicable to my understanding of the connection between the humanities and Humanities.
I view Humanities as a filter of the human experience. Academics take dialogue, testimonies, historical evidence: multitudes of data to highlight a specific part of the human experience that they think is valuable. For example, Professor Wills chose March, “Negroes with Guns,” and other specific texts to explain the Civil Rights movement. Those specific texts influence the way we learn, respond, and most importantly, experience the movement. Different experiences highlight different events and responses, and the literature, music, artifacts, etc. we consume defines our view of the events. There are so many stories and events that occurred during the Civil Rights movement, and it is impossible to know them all or understand the event fully. Humanities becomes a lens in which we study the human experience, and it condenses it down into the humanities.
The humanities are our own learned understandings of human experiences
To put it more simply, the humanities are our internal understanding of human experience. I think of them as meta-experiences, our experiences of learning about human experiences. The humanities are all of the information that we learn about human experience; the way that we understand historical events. In the context of the Humanities class, the humanities are us students’ understanding of the Civil rights movement, the Rwandan genocide, the scientific revolution, and the enlightenment. The class has developed our meta-experience of these events. We have been given readings, lectures, and information that all inform our own experience of these historical moments.
History is created by the passing down of individual experiences, and both Humanities and the humanities create a cycle of learning and retelling, passing down artifacts to preserve a memory. The Humanities are acts of passing on information about the human experience while the humanities are the act of receiving information that shapes our own experience and knowledge. For example, academics learn the humanities when they research a specific topic, and they teach the Humanities when they give a lecture to their students. Students learn the humanities through lectures, and when students share information about the human experience, they are sharing the Humanities.
Although within the Humanities course, I am a student, through this portfolio I teach others about the humanities by sharing my learning experience in this course. Through this portfolio I teach the Humanities by sharing my experience learning about each professor’s humanities. What is so powerful about this course is that having eight professors teach us the Humanities gives us so many different viewpoints to develop our humanities from. Now, it is my chance to present my conglomerative experience in the course; I present my specific viewpoint of the Humanities class to the audience of this website.