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Why are the Humanities Still Important?


By Mark Kelley, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Humanities, American Public University

Perhaps no other question is more familiar to those in the humanities field. The easy answer is that the humanities are foundational to all other professional fields of endeavor, and have been for hundreds of years. What is popularly referred to as the “Digital Humanities” is merely the delivering of an old practice (reading, critically thinking, writing) through an electronic platform, with the added bonus of wider interactivity between students and faculty. But most importantly, those who have learned to critically evaluate texts–often multiple, competing texts in this case–have a distinct advantage over those who have not honed this skill set. We can test this with a simple question: what professional field would prefer a workforce largely unable to make critical distinctions, unable to creatively pose questions and inspect various possible conclusions, over a workforce that was able and prepared to make these distinctions?

Studying humanities opens many avenues

At American Public University, our focus on the humanities is, in one sense, a throwback to the idea of reading and discussing the “Great Books”. Through this fundamental exercise, students acquire critical thinking skills and learn about themselves, and the world. Study of the humanities is no longer an either/or question (old way or new way), as many have argued. Students who take courses in the digital humanities will be equipped, as Paul Jay and Gerald Graff argue in a relevant context, “to enter fields related to everything from writing computer programs to text encoding and text editing, electronic publishing, interface design, and archive construction” (“The Humanities and the Fear of Being Useful”, Inside Higher Education). To that list we can add teaching, intelligence fields, and much more.

Humanities help students to become more articulate and well-rounded

And yet the basic, core exercises long associated with studying the humanities remain fundamental to anything a student may do in his or her life. As David Brooks contends in his Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, “[s]tudying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo” (“History for Dollars”, New York Times, June 7. 2010). Studying the humanities helps students to become critical thinkers, and as critical thinkers they are better prepared to solve the complex questions and problems we face in the new century.


About the Author:

Mark Kelley received his B.A. from Boston University, and his M.Phil. and Ph.D. from The Graduate Center of The City University of New York. Dr. Kelley is author and co-editor of three books on English Literature, as well as numerous articles in journals and webzines, on subjects ranging from literature to the academic job market and incivility in academic discourse.