Almost 40 percent of Yale undergraduates choose to major in the Humanities, a figure wildly in excess of almost any other university.
Why is this?
First of all, the excellence of Yale’s Humanities departments and programs. In the recent National Research Council ratings, the Humanities showed best in class much more consistently than the Sciences or Social Sciences, and in many cases Yale’s Humanities departments are the best nationwide.
What is it the Humanities has to offer?
Training in what the world of late antiquity and the Middle Ages called “the language arts,” that is, in the modes of grammatical, rhetorical and logical inquiry essential to understanding written texts, in the modes of reasoning needed to make crucial distinctions and to formulate concise thought, and in the precise modes of expression necessary to articulate and communicate new ideas, regardless of the field. Language is not a transparent vessel through which thought merely passes unimpeded. It is the very stuff of thinking. And it is the sine qua non for the effective transformation of ideas, no matter how good, into action. Humanities courses, reading and writing intensive courses, and foreign language courses are where many students learn the verbal skills necessary to whatever career path they may eventually choose.
The Humanities provide the terrain and the terms by which our intentions, interests, passions and commitments are to be understood and weighed. The time has never been better. The question of what humanity is, both as a description and a virtue, is all the more acute as the emerging technologies of robotics, genetics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science and animal communication blur traditional boundaries between what is human and what is not. The need has never been greater, now that belief in rational choice on the model of economics, which has dominated Social Science, has been discredited.
From philosophers we learn our obligations to each other or the necessity for external regulation of limitless human appetite. From the litany of lost fortunes and illusions contained in fiction, we discover the tools necessary for assessing our own motivations and character along with the motivation and character of others. From historians, we recognize the unlikely chances of beating certain historical cycles and odds.
We still read great works of the human tradition for what they reveal about enduring questions of war and peace, love and marriage, anger and forgiveness, wandering and homecoming, loyalty and betrayal, nature and nurture, good and evil, the limits and consequences of overarching pride and ambition, the enticements and constraints even of artistic creation. Certain exceptional works, of course, have changed the world. Others have captured or shaped a language and defined a culture and an age. But all great and enduring works offer a privileged view of the human condition — our passions and vices, the objects of our desire and the strategies for obtaining them, our illusions and truest insights, our basest emotions and noblest ideals. Registering the elementary laws of human experience and behavior, they are the most fertile terrain available for practical knowledge of how to understand and to negotiate the world.
Humanists are specialists in an activity upon which all other disciplines depend, indeed, upon which we daily depend in everything we do: the making and assessment of meaning. Though science may observe and compile raw data to predict the way the body or the universe behaves, though social science may compute election patterns over long periods of time, or analyze markets with computer models and algorithms, the meaning and usefulness of all such information depend upon verbal understandings and logical sequences that are the stuff of humanistic study.
Interpretation is the fundamental activity which unites the various disciplines of the Humanities and which it brings to the Sciences and Social Sciences in order that they might make meaning of their own subjects of study. It shapes all understandings of the law, and lies at the root core of politics and diplomacy. Even though medicine might prolong life, it cannot give life meaning. The Humanities draw the lines of a life worth living and the swerves of a life devoid of such meaning. And, when the time comes, “philosophy,” in the phrase of Michel de Montaigne, “prepares us to die.” Interpretation of the type in which Humanities students are trained is the prerequisite for the making of right meaning, and meaning is a singularly powerful shaper of deeds. This is why it is time to think of the Humanities not as a necessary supplement to a more directly profitable course of study, not as politics via esthetic means, not as a stolen pleasure, but as an applied and universally applicable discipline, a way of acquiring the most essential tools for understanding the world in which we act and move.
R. Howard Bloch is Sterling Professor of French and chair of the Humanities Program.