There are two forms of the word humanities: Humanities with a capital “H,” and humanities with a lowercase “h.” Humanities refers to this course, while humanities, as said by Prof. Robb, refers to “a division of the college, as distinguished from the natural and social sciences.” I will begin by defining the humanities, using notes from Prof. Robb’s lecture at the beginning of Sapere Aude1, as well as using my own experiences and references to lectures. Later, I will define Humanities based on personal experience in the class.
The humanities, at Davidson College, include departments such as Theater, Religious Studies, Africana Studies, Philosophy, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and more. These departments make up one of the three divisions, the other two being the natural and social sciences. When defining humanities, it is important to consider what these various disciplines have in common. In Prof. Robb’s lecture, he established four conditions for the humanities: that they focus on normativity, that they include interpretation, that they discuss questions of essential contestability, and that they develop empathy. I find these four conditions to be very useful in examining the humanities. While departments in other divisions may meet a few of these requirements, a discipline that focuses on all four is likely to fit into the humanities. For example, all disciplines can deal with normative ideas like morality, however disciplines in the humanities are more likely to completely focus on these normative ideas. Of course, there are exceptions to all of these conditions. Political Science focuses on the normative topic of politics, but it is classified as a social science. Perhaps this is because it uses scientific methods to answer typically unanswerable questions, such as the best way to form a political society.
One of the most important conditions of the humanities is that they develop empathy. Again, this is a trait that is present in other fields of study, but unlike most departments in the social or natural sciences, I find that developing empathy is the true driving force and origin behind the humanities. Empathy is what sets the humanities apart from other departments, and what makes it unique. After all, empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another human, emphasizing the humanness of the humanities. Studying other humans or how to live one’s life as a human would never be fruitful without understanding other humans at the same time. Empathy is present in Theater when someone adopts the role of another- it is required that the actor have empathy to play the role accurately. Empathy is developed in Latin American studies when studying a new culture with new perspectives. It is a quality present in every department of the humanities. In sum, how would I define the humanities? Perhaps simply as a division of study where empathy is not simply gained, because this could occur in almost any division, but where empathy is the core foundation. Everything else in the humanities stems from this desire for empathy.
Humanities: The Course
Now I must define Humanities, the course that has a focus on the humanities, of course. However, they are not the same thing, hence the need for a separate definition. Similarly to the humanities, I would argue that empathy is a driving force behind Humanities. However, in addition to empathy, community is another driving force, along with introspection. Of course, community fosters both empathy and introspection. When we spend time learning with and from others, we learn to understand their perspectives, and to look into our own thoughts and actions as well. Humanities also has a focus on connections. Since taking Humanities, I have been able to make connections between the past, present, and my own personal experiences far more often. These connections are displayed in many places in my portfolio, such as in my something(s) new, and in my slack posts and annotations.
Therefore, Humanities is a course with focuses on empathy, community, introspection, and making connections. For example, in Prof. Robb’s section, we learned about conceptual schemes, which form our experience and our knowledge. Personally, this lecture helped me to view other perspectives, such as difficult readings in Humanities, through a more open lens. I’m now able to ask myself: Why is their perspective different from my own? It is far easier for me to see the validity of other’s ideas after internalizing the idea of conceptual schemes. In Prof. Green’s workshops where we told personal stories to others, I was able to see the sense of community in Humanities, along with developing empathy and introspection. Dr. Fache’s lectures on Sara Baartman, Josephine Baker, and Beyoncé showed the importance of making connections, for example between the past and present, and the importance of empathy. This unit was extremely difficult for me and many other humesters I’ve talked to, simply because of the high level of empathy it required. Watching and discussing Black Venus was a dark but necessary part of the course, in my opinion. Prof. Tamura’s section on the body as an archive was also necessary, not just for developing empathy, but for increasing introspection. Is using the narratives of others to develop our own empathy just? Introspection was also encouraged when Davidson librarians spoke to the class about how the library archive is part of an imperial system. How can we ethically search for information? Questions like these are a core part of Humanities. In addition, community was fostered when we wrote haikus together as a class in Prof. Tamura’s section.2
The humanities and Humanities
After all of this rambling and detailed searching for the definitions of the humanities and Humanities, I can conclude that they are separate, but certainly intertwined. In Humanities, we are getting an introduction to a variety of disciplines within the humanities. We are gaining the skills of introspection and making connections, and learning the importance of empathy and community. Even for those of us who will not further pursue the humanities as our main area of study past this course, we will bring these focuses with us, to create a more humane, more empathetic world.
- Prof. Robb’s lecture can be found here. It has provided much insight for this definition. I also thank Prof. Robb for his On Defintions primer.
- I thank Professors Robb, Fache, Green, and Tamura for the work they put into their sections and lectures, which I reference here.