The importance of the humanities

There has been quite a lively debate in Korea, and throughout the world, concerning the importance of the humanities. I most certainly think the debate is most welcome and most healthy. I fear that often, however, the argument for the humanities is not made in a manner that will be convincing to undergraduates.

The argument tends to be that the humanities are essential for assuring a more complete human experience, for making you spiritually and ethically more satisfied. Although I certainly would not deny that logic, The fact is that most youth do not think in such terms. For most youth the main issue appears to be survival and there is not  much space for living a more perfect spiritual life. 

It is better, I find, to argue for the humanities in terms that are extremely practical and will make sense to the average undergraduate, or even better, high school student. I have spent a good amount of time with Korean high school students and middle school students (not to mention the two elementary school students who live in my home) over the last year.

Here are a few of my arguments:



Philosophy is the key to understanding how the world works and what the principles we use to determine what is accurate, what is moral and what is true. In this age, information can be manipulated on an unprecedented scale and in the future determining what is true will no longer be a matter of the source. We must learn something of philosophy in order to develop our skills of understanding how things really work, how arguments are made and what the signs of the true and the moral are.

The more diverse the range of philosophical perspectives we are exposed to, the more complex models we can construct for understanding the world in our head and the more accurate our interpretation of events will be.


Literature has two aspects. First literature is about learning expressions to make your argument more effective and more complete. In this internet age, literature has become again critical, rhetoric more specifically, because one’s ability to express oneself in a powerful and suggestive manner can win over many people. Whatever career you pursue, your ability to write well will be as important as any skill. Write your boss a few pointless emails and he will be annoyed. Write him a well crafted thoughtful email each day, and no matter how far down on the totem pole you may be, he will read them with interest.

At the same time, literature is also about learning to read between the lines. The skill of being able to interpolate what an individual meant by an expression can be absolutely critical. So also, reading carefully between the lines in newspapers or corporate statements is an invaluable skill. Reading, if done well, can find meaning in just about any text–and is your most important weapon. Without reading widely, however, you cannot build up that skill.


History allows one to anticipate the future. By understanding how different individuals, groups and societies evolve and respond to changes in the past, one can understand how one’s own age is evolving and what the pressures people are subject to. Each age is unique, but if one has a large range of different historical cases in one’s head, one can easily pull up a few to match against a contemporary political or economic issue. In many cases, one will find a near fit. The more precedents one has in one’s head, the more precise one’s analysis.

Just gathering information without historical precedents in mind is not very useful. Following Hegel’s dictum that history repeats, but always with a new twist, one can then make up models as to what might happen in the future. Those who have read broadly in history and creatively apply what they learn to understanding the present and anticipating the future are at a tremendous advantage.

The arts:

Needless to say, this age increasingly demands that we express ourselves in a powerful manner and a visual medium is the best way to do so.   Sensibility about the effective uses of images and symbols is not a minor hobby, it is a powerful way to influence people and to establish one’s stature. The study of art history, and actual practice of the creative arts is essential to developing such skills.

At the same time, in an age in which we are increasingly manipulated by images, a strong understanding of aesthetics is also an essential skill. Only with an understanding of the power of images and other artistic strategies can one avoid being manipulated. Moreover, the march of reproductive technologies means it is increasingly difficult to determine what exactly is true. As images, and videos, of just about anything can be created, aesthetic understanding that trains us to identify the indicators of authenticity will only increase in importance.



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