Defining the Humanities and the humanities

Humanities (noun): A course of study at Davidson that explores a certain theme within human cultural, literary, and visual artifacts, e.g. a course centered on Revolution.

Humanities (noun): A subset of human scholarly work concerning art and thought that is created by human minds; it focuses on interactions with sources rather than scientific inquiry. Examples are English, history, or philosophy.

A page from my red notebook containing notes from Unit 5, which explored the connections between modern abstract art and brain science, and thus an interaction between the sciences and the humanities.

The Humanities class at Davidson has been a central part of my first year at Davidson. The course is titled Connections and Conflicts, and its official description within the Humanities department page on Davidson’s website entails an investigation of various revolutions and their comparisons across human history. While this is certainly part of the Humanities course, it is not nearly an accurate depiction of everything that is the Humanities at Davidson. Humes (as we call it for short) has also become a community of people who care for each other and have formed strong friendships. Our week-long Sapere Aude study trip to begin the school year immediately preceded New Student Orientation and helped create the close-knit group that we have today. Additionally, the study trips and units impart unique perspectives that are not typically addressed in a history or writing class (although Humanities students earn credits for both of those areas). For example, our third unit concerned the Rwandan genocide and other instances of human violence, and our fourth unit was on the brilliant but unconventional post-war poetry of Paul Celan. The Humanities class is a thrilling mix between traditional and unique styles. We do readings, hold discussions, and write papers, but we study areas of the humanities that are often ignored. The class is an enlightening and interesting experience that is quintessentially Davidson.

The Humanities course also taught me about the nature of the humanities as a subject and what they entail. In a nutshell, the humanities are one of three categories of human knowledge, along with natural science and social science. While natural science (such as chemistry) describes the nature of our physical world, and social science (such as psychology) describes the nature of human behavior, the humanities encompass everything we have created. Art, history, philosophy, English, and even mathematics are areas of study which are part of the humanities. One interesting way to define the humanities is to ask about the number of solutions for a give problem. While work in the sciences strives to find theright answer, the humanities consider multiple options, and sometimes does not attempt to answer any question at all. In short, C.P. Snow wrote in his essay The Two Culturesthat the humanities consist of the “literary intellectuals,” that is to say, the people who study human literature and other forms of human production.[1]An illustration of how the humanities are different from the sciences was evident in our 5thunit, which explored how modern abstract art is related to brain science. Brain scientists attempt to find a single explanation for the way that our minds work. Abstract art on the other hand, uses a variety of methods to try to inspire feeling its viewers. While science attempts to explain, the humanities attempt to investigate and inspire. Furthermore, our studies in the class concerning the Copernican Revolution were another point at which we were shown what the humanities are. In this unit, we discovered that the use of conceptual schemes to explain things were the basis of the scientific method that Copernicus employed in his work. Conversely, our interest in the religious and social response to a heliocentric system was the source of our humanities-based study in the unit. Overall, the humanities are a branch of human knowledge that explore feeling and thought, rather than attempting to quantitatively explain the world.

[1]C.P. Snow, “The Two Cultures,” Lecture, The Rede Lecture at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England, 1959.