How the Humanities Can Save Humanity

The following post was written by Andrew Rees, a student Fellow for the Center. 

I have been deeply troubled by the growing anti-Islamic sentiment across the United States in recent weeks. Calls to bar entrance to Middle Eastern refugees and even all Muslims have been met, not with apprehension, but with widespread support across the nation. The phrase “War on Islam,” which our leaders worked so hard to eradicate in the aftermath of 9/11, has resurged. The rhetoric about Muslims is increasingly dehumanizing. This, among other current issues, has led me to ask one question: Where is our humanity?

What is humanity? It is an interesting word with multiple, intricate definitions. It is fitting that a word with a plurality of meanings and interpretations is the word that defines the human race. We are part of a family of the most complex and nuanced beings known to exist. Each of us is molded and defined by experiences—experiences that are so different from one another. It would be impossible for any one of us to perfectly understand another. Because we are so complex, ideology that oversimplifies, labels, or hyperbolizes poses a danger to humanity. When we lose touch with the human nature of those around us, most especially those who are most different from us, we lose our humanity as a result of devaluing theirs.

The unifying theme of the study of the humanities is found in its root word—humanity. From the theories of philosophy to classic French literature, the humanities speak to what it is to be human. They help us to understand humanity on a wider, more nuanced scale. A human life is not black or white, or even “fifty shades of grey.” It is much more complex than that. Labels or hyperbole do not suffice. An education in the humanities gives its students the critical thinking skills needed to navigate nuance. It gives the analytical tools necessary to understand moral ambiguity. And it gives the independent thinking and leadership skills required to avoid hyperbole and groupthink. Here are just a few of the ways in which I believe a broad education in the humanities can help save our understanding of humanity:

Critical Thinking to Decipher Hyperbole

We live in the age of hyperbole. Surely, –est has become one of the more common suffixes in our vernacular. It seems that sensationalism, extremism, and hyperbole dominate our televisions, our radios, and most especially, our social media feeds. The thinking that something is “best” “biggest” or “fastest” seems harmless enough, yet is it? Or could the same kind of thinking that encourages hyperbole and exaggeration be akin to ideas like racism and absolutism? When this type of thinking translates directly to the narrative that my idea, country, or race is “best,” it becomes dangerous. Such thinking is rarely examined more closely or more honestly. It is perhaps an element of such damaging philosophies as ethnocentrism and xenophobia. It is our education in the humanities that enables us to look beyond hyperbole and look for truth. An education that helps emphasize language, communication, and culture teaches students to be able to see other cultures, ideologies, and races, not as “best” or “worst,” but in a nuanced and honest way, that invites understanding and does not leave room for bigotry or racism.

Analytical Skills to Understand Moral Ambiguities

“There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist.”

—The Wizard, Wicked

An education in the humanities gives the budding intellectual the tools to navigate moral ambiguity. For example, there simply is no equation or model that could possibly account for every factor contributing to the unrest in the Middle East and the rise of radical terrorism. There is no silver bullet. There is no albatross that can be hung around the neck of one individual or country. Who is right? Who is wrong? There is moral ambiguity weaved into history. Without the dynamic critical thinking abilities that are developed in the study of the humanities, it is easy to want to ignore such ambiguities. The “equation” becomes simpler if we eliminate the possibility that our nation might be partially at fault. The honest observer cannot make such an assumption. Yet we do it every day. Education in the humanities helps the student to overcome these tendencies, to accept the moral ambiguity of the world, and to seek to understand it.

Independent Thinking to Overcome Groupthink

The humanities, at their core, teach one of the most important human values: independence of thought. This independence empowers the student to identify bias and recognize cognitive dissonance. This empowering enables them to identify the logical fallacies that often accompany groupthink. Paul A. Kottman ascertained that “without education in the humanities, we might well act altruistically, or reflexively hold certain political values, but we would not be articulating or justifying such values and, hence, would not make explicit reasons for organizing our lives accordingly.” Questioning our values is one of the best ways to strengthen them. A study of the humanities urges us to question and find answers. It inspires us to lead, not blindly follow.

The humanities can save humanity. They are the gateway to understanding humanity in all of its meanings. The word has three different definitions, and all seem to need saving. Humanity can first be defined as humankind. The humanities strive to understand humankind, its cultures, its plight, and its actions. Humanity is also defined as the state of being human. As we understand better what it means to be human, we can better understand other humans, from all walks of life. Humanity’s third definition is the one most connected to action: the quality of being humane, or kindness. Understanding the humanities will ultimately make us more humane. Whether in times of war, terror, or peace, increasing the humanity of humanity is the direct result of the humanities. Yes, we are all human. Yes, we do need the humanities. Yes, the humanities can save us.

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