Why the Humanities: 'The Maps and Tools to Find Your Way Back Home'
Why the Humanities?
By Joseph Tinguely
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.
Joseph Tinguely is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of South Dakota and a scholar in the SDHC Speakers Bureau.
The Very Act of Deciding What's Important
Why do the humanities matter? This very question, as innocent looking as it is, cuts straight to the heart of the matter. After all, the question is not, why are the humanities important, but why is anything important? This is not a trick question, nor is it especially profound.
Take an example of something you like to do, that adds value or meaning to your life, and ask yourself: why is this thing that I like important? How do you answer the question? Your answer—whatever it ends up being—is the humanities.
"Humanities" is not a doctrine, a teaching, a book, or a formula—it is the very act of deciding what is important and what is not.
Because we all find importance and value in our lives, we are all already in the business of trying to figure out what matters, and so we are all practitioners of the "humanities."
We can't avoid the humanities; we can only deal with it better or worse. But the better we deal with it, the happier we tend to be.
Where are the Answers?
In that sense, the "humanities" is there in our day-to-day lives when we ask ourselves innocent questions. What needs to be done here? Is it time for me to become involved, or is it perhaps better for me take a step back and give others a chance? What's the right thing to do?
Just because the questions arise innocently in our everyday lives as we are trying to go about our business or get through the day doesn't mean that they are easy to answer. How does one decide? Where are the answers? Unfortunately, life doesn't come with an answer key.
And the humanities are not the answer key. Of course, the humanities present one with a rich and surprising array of the kinds of answers that have been explored across history and culture. One of the great joys of history, anthropology, or literature is coming to realize that the menu of options is much wider and deeper than one had realized. But that need not mean that one's own traditions and familiar routines are provincial or wrong.
In fact, it can lend credibility to one's own preferred ways of doing things when you can compare them to other historical or cultural alternatives and explain why you value your own customs and traditions.
The Return Home
Everyone has had that experience of coming home from a trip and seeing your own house as if for the first time. You are right, your home is a good place, but it took a trip away to be able to see it for what it is. The humanities is not the trip away, it is the return home.
But, no, the humanities are not the answer key. Knowing what kind of answers have been explored across history and culture is, of course, very important—but a deeper and richer menu of options still won't answer the essential question: so which one, then, is right? What matters to me? In what do I find value? What can I do without? When should I say "no"? What is worth doing?
Where Things Matter
The importance of the humanities, then, is not that it answers the questions for you but that it does something much more subtle and much more important: it gives you the wherewithal and the confidence to answer the questions for yourself, not only to answer them but to defend them to others and, more importantly defend them to a much tougher audience: yourself.
And defending your own sense of values is surprisingly hard work. After all, why are the things that you think are important really important?
It is precisely here that the humanities have "got your back." The point of the humanities is not to wave an accusing finger or tie you in knots of self-doubt. In fact, it's just the opposite. It takes all the resources of history, philosophy, cultural studies, and literature to follow you wherever your thoughts lead. The humanities are like an outfitter with the conceptual tool kit and maps of the known options.
These are the maps and tools you'll need to find your way back home and see it for what it is: a place of importance, the place where things matter.