The Practical Value of the Humanities

Rachel Miles


Thursday September 11, Dr. Monica Vilhauer made her way to the podium in Pickle Lounge to introduce The Practical Value of the Humanities speech and the guest speaker who would be giving it. She prefaced the lecture by describing her own area of study, humanities, as an area which is sometimes laughed at, judged, or considered irrelevant by those who study more ‘practical’ subjects. This program was hosted by The Roanoke College Pathways Program and The Jordan Endowment for the Humanities.

Professor Nicholas Davey is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dundee in Scotland, who also has a history of being the head of his department and the dean of the school for many years. His professional interests vary from Buddhist teachings to the concepts read in Nietzsche to hermeneutics. He is the author of several books, namely Unquiet Understanding, Unfinished World, and his yet unpublished Humanities in Question.

Pacing in front of the large gathering of students and faculty, Professor Nicholas Davey articulates clearly and powerfully his defense on the purpose of the humanities from a perspective founded in the UK, but important in all countries that teach these subjects and give them credit in their individual rights.

What are the humanities? “A representative of a philosophy that has always had to fight hard against the virile position of the analytic school,” Davey says, “the humanities foster critical thinking, clear communication, and ethics that are necessary for this human life.” He admits that the humanities often make things more difficult, but this may be where their general worth is founded. In making life and thought more difficult, they make mankind more able to face difficulty and become breeders of creativity. This is one example of why the critiques of the humanities are essential, because in our examination and our manipulation of them, we can better prove that humanities are crucial to social rejuvenation.

The main argument against the humanities is that they do not benefit the manufactural base of society in any way. They give nothing back to social economy, so social economy is seeing fewer reasons to impart their resources to these subjects. The further decrease of funds for the humanities will consequentially decrease the jobs available in the humanities. However, Davey passionately stated in his speech that the study of the humanities does not prepare students for jobs in the humanities, but rather jobs in any area of study where openness and creative problem solving are called for. A major in the humanities, then, makes graduates perhaps some of the most valuable potential hires.

It is important to note that our society has gone through roughly forty economical crises over the years regardless of the money put into the humanities and have been none the worse for it. In fact, during the time of those eventual victories over economic crisis, we had more divisions of the humanities than we do today. An example of this is the Moral Sciences, which studied the place of humanity in the sciences. As we weed many of the important divisions of the humanities out of the department, we are losing key wells of knowledge that could have a powerful effect on some of the negative situations of today.

The argument that Davey’s makes is deeply rooted in economy, sociology and history. However, he also asks two major questions for the audience to reflect on. First, “What is the relationship between the humanities and humanity?” and second, “What does the study of humanities do to you?” The humanities is the never ending study of humanity-its growth, strengths and ability. It thrives on the concept that there are unanswerable and intangibles, and it allows those who study it to embrace chaos rather than shy away from it. When we understand that the humanities by nature develop tension and conflict which produces creativity and increased understanding in all areas, we will no longer ask about the necessity of the humanities, but rather how we can expand them to incorporate all subjects and areas of life.