Humanities, often dubbed the human sciences, consist of a broad range of subjects that often get classified as the subjects of ‘Arts’. Studying humanities, the human sciences, for a specialised degree currently results in becoming a ‘Bachelor of Arts’. But there is more to it. Those specialising in the sciences, technology, medicine, law and in business management, too, can fruitfully append a humanities course to their majors and improve their ability to understand the human condition and deal effectively with human beings. Most good universities and colleges provide for such add-on courses.
Understanding humans is imperative should one want to do anything that has to do with others—working with people, coordinating with people, synergising with others, learning from them, leading them, guiding them, getting work out of them.
The most interesting aspect of humanities is that one does not need much prior knowledge of the subject to enter it and acquire a working knowledge. But it is absolutely important to have a curiosity about the human condition if one wants to benefit from a study of the humanities. Social sensitiveness also helps in understanding the subjects concerned better. Conversely, an exposure to the humanities helps to hone one’s social sensibilities and understand the variations in human hopes, aspirations and actions.
There are various levels at which one can study humanities. One can specialise in humanities or study these as add-on courses while getting specialist training as a scientist or an engineer or a business manager. Of course, there is also the option of studying humanities on one’s own, as a private student.
Not a loser’s territory
Whether more intelligent students opt for the humanities stream or not is a moot question over which a debate has been going on since the 19th century. The current myth is that the intelligent ones take up humanities only after making an unsuccessful attempt to become a doctor or an engineer etc.
At the school level almost all students have already had a basic exposure to the humanities in the form of a course in social sciences and another in literature. It is at the college level that more exposure to the complexity of human nature helps in appreciating the knowledge gained from the humanities better.
Often people opting for the humanities believe that they are choosing a ‘soft’ set of subjects for study. This kind of belief does hold in so far as some of the basics of humanities go since they are easily comprehended by those who have had — as most school leavers do — a decade and half of experience of having existed as a human being. But soon everyone learns that there is more to it and that the study of society, too, requires conscientious observation, thought and analysis much in the manner of the other sciences.
There are two big differences, though:
1 There are no strong theories about what the human sciences have to offer to its students, though there is always a question mark over the scientific basis of the human sciences and that results in an unending but merry debate with the pure sciences;
2 The subject of study — human beings, as an individual and in different collectivities — is much more varied in its behaviour and responses than the subject of any other sciences. These characteristics of the human sciences make their study so much the more interesting and challenging.
Spoilt for choice
Those just out of school have a wide variety of subjects to choose from. Within the university system, strictly for reasons of administrative convenience, the subjects have been divided into various ‘disciplines’ and the disciplines are divided into ‘departments’. As fashions in the academic world change the titles of these disciplines and departments also change accordingly. Broadly speaking they get distributed among two separate streams. Those that consider themselves more ‘scientific’ use the phrase ‘social sciences’; the ones that presume creativity and imagination to be a larger part of their existence call themselves subjects of the ‘arts’. Whatever these variations, they all study the human condition in its diverse aspects.
Philosophy is the oldest of all the human sciences. Here students study ideas, their logical construction and variants therein. In the process of studying ideas the focus is often on studying great philosophers from the past. Alongside philosophers from the ancient Western world, students also get an exposure to Indian philosophical traditions since the time of the Vedas. Imbricated within philosophy is the study of religion. In some universities this develops into full-fledged courses in the history and philosophy of religion. But that kind of specialisation happens after graduation.
Some professional philosophers say that their task is to make the obvious more obvious. Others insist that the task of the philosopher is to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle. The image is that of humanity being caught, like a fly, inside a bottle, constantly banging its head against the walls without making any effort to find out the small, narrow neck from which it could escape. One of the more unique contributions that a formal study of philosophy makes is in sensitising one to the use in everyday life of restrained observations, thought and logic for the construction of ideas. Correspondingly, professional students of philosophy make very good lawyers and CEOs of business ventures.
Out of philosophy, in modern times, emerged the professional study of the economy, politics and society. In the beginning, in the period known as the period of ‘mercantilism’, these contributed to figure out how best the revenues of the state could be increased. At the same time it became important to understand the interaction between states, nations and other governing entities. How best could one’s own state steal a march over other rival states? By the end of the 19th century the broad subject of philosophy got divided into the currently recognisable disciplines. Economics focused on the study of the economy. Sociology became the subject in which social behaviour was scientifically examined. Political Science came to examine the details of political behaviour of the individual and aggregates of individuals.
Sigmund Freud showed that there was much more to the behaviour of persons than was visible on the surface. That sparked off a flourishing field of study called ‘Psychology’.
History and geography separated from each other and acquired the shape of distinct disciplines with geography even being granted the status of a proper science in some contexts. The study of geography involved the study of patterns of regional development, population and of course maps and the most recent and popular study of Geographic Information Systems, GIS.
History, hitherto a story-telling craft, came to be a discipline focussing on the management of large-scale systems. Initially historians focussed on questions like how did empires come into being, how great men moved the world, revolutions succeeded or failed. Today the scope of this subject has broadened considerably. Historians are the most devoted to reading the written word. The skill in reading massive tomes, making sense of these and writing detailed reports, equips history students especially for other jobs that require such skills. Lawyers, judges, those who legislate, are often students of history.
A handmaiden of the study of history (or maybe vice versa) is the study of Languages and Cultures. In olden times these were known as ‘Classical Studies’, closely placed alongside the study of history, philosophy, logic, grammar and mathematics. Hitherto it was mostly the aristocrats who studied these subjects. It was believed that these were the subjects that best equip a person to understand the human condition in all its complexity; that knowledge in these subjects was imperative in order to be a good leader of people.
— The writer is Professor, Contemporary History, Panjab University, Chandigarh