Importance of humanities heightened in modern world

by Mona C. Frederick

What are the humanities? The Congressional Act in 1964 establishing the National Endowment for the Humanities defines the humanities in part as "the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism, and theory of the arts." In other words, the humanities are the study of what it is to be human.

In today's ever increasingly technological and fast-paced world, the study of what it is to be human takes on heightened importance. Questions regarding cloning, genetics and artificial intelligence, to name but a few, are issues that involve much more than technical skill. These are questions that force our society, and indeed our world, to explore closely issues related to human history, human nature and our future as a global community.

Supporting humanistic scholarship and study in colleges and universities ensures that we are preparing students to enter the workforce with the skills that are required to think critically, to write clearly, to debate thoughtfully and to deliberate carefully. Although our society presently measures information transfer systems in nanoseconds, it is important that we not lose touch with the art of patient, intensive learning. Reading, thinking, and interpreting are arts that are jeopardized in a world in which speed, efficacy, and ease take on exalted status.

Vanderbilt University has a long tradition of supporting and encouraging humanistic study. This has not always been the case at other institutions, or in our culture at large. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the legislation establishing the Arts and Humanities Endowments in 1965, he stated, "We in America have not always been kind to the artists and scholars who are the creators and the keepers of our vision. Somehow, the scientists always seem to get the penthouse, while the arts and the humanities get the basement."

Susan Ford Wiltshire, professor of classical studies, is a member of the National Council on the Humanities, an advisory council for the NEH, and is also a member of the Executive Committee of Vanderbilt's Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. She recently remarked, "The ability to share the stories that keep our society civil, our minds alert, and our hearts happy requires attentive nurturing. That attentiveness is the purpose of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Warren Center."


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