History and the Humanities: Why We Should Care

Burn old logs. Drink old wine. Read old books. Keep old friends.’

Alfonso X of Spain

There was a point early in lockdown where one of my friends, still doing A-Levels at the time, was messaging me about an online class he had. The class was sociology, and the topic was Feminism and Education. He was a bit taken aback by the stance that schools are male-dominated and that subjects teach patriarchal values. I, needing a fun distraction amidst the monotony of lockdown, started to feed him arguments that I thought might stir the pot. At one point, however, the teacher had raised a criticism about girls being pressured to do arts and humanities. In response, I told my friend to ask: ‘why are there programs encouraging girls to do STEM but there aren’t programs encouraging guys to do humanities?’. Despite it being intended as more of a quip, it’s a point that has stuck with me. Where is the encouragement – for anyone – to take up the humanities?

The obvious answer is that they don’t pay as well. At least straight off the bat, STEM graduates tend to earn at least 5% more than their Bachelor of Arts counterparts. Our society is economically focused in a lot of other ways too. We tend to rate university degrees by employability and post-grad incomes. We generally read self-help books that improve our productivity instead of our character. All of this makes sense – money helps us to survive and in its ability to be traded for goods and services, the more of it we have, the more free we are. Yet if you were to read the humanities, perhaps Aristotle as an example, you might come to realise that while money is good, it isn’t capital-G Good. ‘Good’ instead of ‘good’ is the difference between something that is good in and of itself and something that we happen to like. Money isn’t capital-G Good because it’s a means to an end, it gets us what we want but it isn’t that end thing in itself. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun and games joking around with STEM students about my degree. I have a friend that did natural sciences at Cambridge, a degree that is about as STEM as you can get, yet because he went to Cambridge, his degree is technically a BA while my Politics and International Relations degree is a BSc. Despite the fact that I’m actually doing a Bachelor of Science, my go-to joke when I meet someone new who does STEM is to say “oh nice! So, you’ll actually be making money after university then ahaha,”. It’s best to get the joke out of the way before they get it in first. 

I am someone who has always loved reading books and as a person who unashamedly studied English Lit for A-Level, I want to try and explain why the humanities are important. 

Literature, whether it’s a Shakespearean play or The Great Gatsby, contain nuggets of wisdom that other people have figured out. One of the universal traits across cultures is storytelling and a likely reason for that is that stories are tremendously useful at teaching lessons. Pick up any self-help book and it will be riddled with anecdotes and stories for that very reason. Watch a TEDTalk of your choice and it will no doubt feature a tale that backs up the point it’s trying to make. 

When we pick up an older book, say The Odyssey or Romeo and Juliet, something magical happens. Not only does it contain lessons, but it contains lessons written 400 or even 2,400 years ago. The magic is that when we stumble across these lessons, it shows that we’ve hit on something that is important to the experience of being human. With the tips-and-trick productivity books that one might find in an airport WHSmith, you’re likely to get generic recommendations or a topical lesson that will seem out of place within a few years. Literature, by default of it still being read today, teaches lessons that are timeless and shared by people across time and space. This is exactly what studying the humanities is all about – understanding what it means to be human. By taking the time to consider the arts, we can realise that there are some issues that aren’t unique to us personally, but rather issues that people have always had to deal with. In some way, we’re almost having a conversation with people who have lived centuries and even millennia ago (there’s a reason why philosophy and the humanities are sometimes described as ‘The Great Conversation’) and it helps us to realise that we’re not alone, that we are all struggling with similar stuff. 

There’s a real issue of ignoring the humanities – which is fundamentally an education in the experience of being human – but thankfully, it’s not a new one. At the end of World War II, American troops were finally able to cross the Atlantic and return home. The war had galvanised a country that had been struggling with the aftermath of the Great Depression. Americans had crossed the seas, taken on a truly evil regime and now their country was experiencing a boom. Industry and productivity were the buzz words; who could care less about dusty old poets? In the words of Adorno, to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbarism. Filled with self-confidence and righteousness at having beaten the Nazis, now was the time to build and celebrate, not philosophize and ponder. Nonetheless, one playwright hailing from the Deep South of Mississippi called Tennessee Williams did just that and wrote a play called A Streetcar Named Desire

The play follows a character called Blanche, a southern Belle who’s struggling to make ends meet and lives with her sister and her new husband Stanley – a man returned from war with all the vigour and pride of a victorious soldier. To keep things brief, the two don’t get along. Stanley is oil-stained, brutish, aggressive and energetic in pulling himself up in the world. Blanche is used to the finer things in life and finds a working-class lifestyle beneath her. Whether she’s delicate or lazy is a matter of perspective. There is one character though, that stands out to me. His name is Mitch. On the surface, he’s a simple man – he works hard at his job, enjoys athletics and sports as well as going to Stanley’s to play poker. Yet despite coming across as a carbon copy of Stanley, he has a delicate side – he’s a caregiver for his mother and recites poetry. I don’t want to spoil the dramatic ending of the play but suffice to say that Williams was vocal in his warning that to lend too much weight onto the side of productivity at the cost of all else would leave you with uncaring people with the capacity to do what they wanted. The playwright may have struggled to reconcile the humanities with utilitarian skills in his play but A Streetcar Named Desireprovides plenty of food for thought. 

History is filled with ample cases of men and women who had the practical skills to take on challenges and make change but also the cultural education to make the world more than just a dogfight. Alexander the Great was tutored by Aristotle and brought with him a philosopher on his campaigns; Elizabeth I, known for taking on the Spanish Armada and the might of most of Europe, ushered in a Golden Age for England with people like Shakespeare and Robert Smyhtson; Napoleon, the great general of his age and who advocated teaching maths at every turn was known for his love of Goethe and wrote his own plays and novels too. 

The humanities, as the name suggests, are there to remind us that there’s more to being human than just being a particularly useful tool. It’s easy to feel like you’re getting caught up in a rat race when the follow up question to ‘what’s your name?’ is ‘what do you do/study/want to work as?’. A lot of our decisions today are centred around financial viability and with the cost of living crisis making itself known, it can feel like we’re just here to make ends meet. In an age where society seems geared towards making you more productive, more useful and more practical, I encourage you to take the time to enjoy the Arts so that you appreciate that being human is to be more.

‘Books are a form of magic… because they span time and distance more surely than any spell or charm. What did so-and-so think about such-and-such two hundred years agone? Can you fly back through the ages and ask him? No – or at least probably not. But, ah! If he wrote down his thoughts, if somewhere there exists a scroll, or a book of his logical discourses… he speaks to you! Across centuries!’

Tad Williams

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