Why the Humanities: 'The Humanities is Fully Half of our Human Existence'

Why the Humanities?

By Steven Sanford

Editor's Note: "Why the Humanities" is an SDHC blog series explaining the importance of the humanities to our state and nation. The series features guest posts from experts in the humanities disciplines and those who have been touched by humanities programming. The opinions expressed in this series do not represent official views of the South Dakota Humanities Council and are the sole property of the author.

Steven W. Sanford is an attorney with Cadwell Sanford Deibert & Garry LLP in Sioux Falls and a former member of the SDHC Board of Directors.

Unprecedented Discovery and Exploration

We live in an unprecedented time of discovery and exploration. And the pace of that discovery and exploration is accelerating at a breathtaking rate. Today's range of subjects was unimaginable only a short time ago, and tomorrow's are only dimly perceivable today.

We continue to find the foundations, components and particles of existence in smaller and smaller bits, invisible but for our ever-developing tools of viewing. We make new discoveries that help us toward a more perfect understanding of the mechanisms by which Nature functions. Our exploration of the Space of our Universe has taken us so close to the beginning of time that we now see by telescope the traveled light of objects so far away that they no longer exist.

By now seeing in the air what the eye cannot see, we have developed incredible forms of communication that once were only the stuff of Dick Tracy comic books. The original concept of mere plus/minus, off/on--simple binary functions--has rapidly evolved to the sophistication and capacity of computers on the brink of acquiring the means of judgment, and not just calculation and observation.

Our exploration of our own Earth continues to yield incredible discoveries about forms of life preceding us and currently-living forms not even known yesterday. The latest estimates are that the Earth is occupied by over 8 million forms of life, 80% of which on land and 90% of which in the seas have not yet been identified.

Why the Humanities is a new blog series from the South Dakota Humanities Council.


'So What About us as Humans?'

All of this is fascinating, of course. But none of it is about us. So what about us as humans? It is our nature to ask that question, and so the humanities exist. They are as fundamental to our human functioning as our beating, pumping hearts. We search for understandings of ourselves, our communities, our culture, our histories and our lives together that science cannot provide. Without them, the searches and discoveries of science are of little value—pointless, actually.

Because we are in form and function much the same as even thousands of years ago, the best understandings, the most memorable searchings about ourselves, are timeless. Hamlet is as powerful today as Hamilton. So we look back as we look forward. But we never stop asking more.

James Joyce's classic "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" ends with this:

Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

'The Smithies of our Souls'

Perhaps our own individual searches for the meaning of our humanity are not so memorably characterized as Joyce's for Stephen Dedalus. Yet they are hardly different. The isolation Joyce portrays in the character's Irish upbringing is a metaphor for our own isolation if the humanities is not plural—in other words, a shared progress. Shared means being together. Shared means being led. Shared means not only in small ways, but also in larger public ways. Yes, public.

So how is it to be public? With public support, of course. Well, then, here we are. To the point. The humanities is fully half of our human existence. The pursuit of accomplishments of science and technology must be in the companionship of care for our human selves. This is no argument, but instead the reality we know in our hearts—the smithies of our souls.

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