Skip to content

Humanities Throughout Time

The study of the humanities is, in essence, the study of culture. The discipline includes a broad spectrum of subjects:

  • Language.
  • Literature.
  • History.
  • Philosophy.
  • Music.
  • Art.
  • Religion.

Many colleges and universities teach the humanities under a liberal arts categorization and require students to take a broad sampling of these classes in addition to classes in their major area of study. Such curricula seek to give students a well-rounded understanding of human culture.

Why Are the Humanities Important?

The humanities are important because they help us understand the development and existence of our species. While literature, music and philosophy are seemingly not as practical areas of study compared to math and science, they are a crucial part of understanding who we are.

John Horgan, director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology, wrote, “We live in a world increasingly dominated by science … it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever.” Horgan argues that because science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education focuses on being given “truth” in the form of scientific facts, the skepticism gained by study of the humanities is as valuable as ever.

Martha Nussbaum, professor at the University of Chicago, argues that education needs to “prepare students for rich and meaningful lives, and … for democratic citizenship.” By developing skills in argument, critical thinking, and “sympathetic imagination,” Nussbaum argues that students will be better prepared for the world.

How Has the Study of Humanity Developed over Time?

The modern humanities, as we recognize them now, trace back to the curricula the classical Greeks studied under the Sophists in the 5th century BC. Knowledge of these subjects was considered fundamentally important for citizens, in practice as well as in study.

In the Middle Ages, St. Augustine furthered the development of curricula in early Christian education, and the emphasis continued to be on the importance of building knowledge of the humanities.

Italians in the Renaissance first used the term studia humanitatis to describe secular scholarship in grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, philosophy and languages. It was around this time that humanities subjects, especially history, became areas for study rather than practice.

How Has the Study of Humanities Progressed?

Since the Renaissance, the scope of the humanities has expanded to be less defined by secularism. German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, author of Introduction to the Human Sciences (1883), wrote that “human sciences … contain three distinct classes of assertions.” These can be summarized as the historical, the theoretical and the practical.

Heinrich Rickert, a contemporary peer of Dilthey’s, dissented from the content-based definition of the humanities. Rickert argued that the distinction between the natural sciences (now also known as “hard” sciences) and the humanities, or social sciences, was misleading.

Rickert considered the distinction between “nature” and “humans” to be imprecise because many topics blurred the line between human culture and nature. Dilthey’s classifications, which became the norm in the 20th century, replaced an alternate categorization study of fact-seeking versus law-seeking that Rickert proposed.

What Will the Study of Humanity Look Like in the Future?

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences outlines three goals for the future of the humanities in a 2013 report, The Heart of the Matter.

First, the humanities must “educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a 21st century democracy.” These include full literacy; education in history, civics, and social studies; access to online resources, including teaching materials; and public engagement through a network of institutions.

Second, the humanities must “foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong.” To accomplish this, they must increase investment, create cohesive curricula, strengthen support for teachers, encourage all disciplines to address “grand challenges” such as provision of clean air and water, food, health, energy and education, and communicate the importance of research to the public.

Finally, the humanities should “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.” The commission recommends the promotion of language learning, the expansion of education in international studies, the support of study abroad and exchange programs, and the development of a “Culture Corps” to organize volunteers within institutions to transfer humanities skills to the next generation.

Learn more about the UTPB online Bachelor of Arts in Humanities program.


Encyclopedia Britannica: Humanities

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Wilhelm Dilthey

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Heinrich Rickert

American Academy of Arts and Sciences: The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences

Scientific American: Why Study Humanities? What I Tell Engineering Freshmen

Have a question or concern about this article? Please contact us.

Get Started Today!
Get Started Today!
*All fields required.

or call us 877-588-3305

By submitting this form, I am providing my digital signature agreeing that The University of Texas of the Permian Basin (UTPB) may email me or contact me regarding educational services by telephone and/or text message utilizing automated technology at the telephone number(s) provided above. I understand this consent is not a condition to attend UTPB or to purchase any other goods or services.