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Humanities tell our stories of what it means to be human

September 06, 2012

“We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
– Poet Maya Anglou

What, exactly, are the humanities?

Ask ASU students at random for a definition, and you’ll find that their answers reflect those of the population at large:

For Haley, the humanities are “liberal arts – English and literature stuff.”

Cody defines them as “culture, art and history,” while Katie and Evan say they aren’t sure what the humanities are.

Just like the ASU students, many – or most – people don’t know exactly what “humanities” are, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t vital to our lives.

“Yes, folks don't know how to define humanities, even those inside humanities disciplines,” said Neal Lester, who was appointed to the new position of dean of the humanities three years ago.

Lester, who now is an associate vice president for Humanities and Arts in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, said, “My approach is to look past definitions by showing what humanities does and then naming it – whatever the ‘it’ is.

“Plus, definitions are not static. And definitions can be confusing when words and meanings meander based on lots of things. Because humanities is so broad, its imprecision throws folks in ways that ‘arts,’ ‘science,’ ‘business’ and ‘technology’ do not.”

For such an “indefinable” term, humanities has a great many people paying attention to it, both locally and nationally.

There’s the Arizona Humanities Council (AHC), for example, and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Each has its own, and slightly different, definition of humanities.

The AHC’s goal is to “build a just and civil society by creating opportunities to explore our shared human experiences through discussion, learning and reflection,” according to its website.

The NEH defines humanities as “the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.”

The key words in both definitions are “human environment,” and “shared human experiences.”

And, the single most important word, obviously, is “human.” So the humanities address the question of what it means to be human and how we, as humans, interact with each other.

A popular online dictionary defines humanities as “academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences.”

In other words, we cannot put humanities under a microscope, find a formula in it, or create a problem with one solution, as in mathematics. Humans are human, and experience the world through human interaction that is mirrored and explored through literature, languages, history, law, philosophy, archaeology, comparative religion and ethics.

Lester, who is immediate past chair of the board of directors for the Arizona Humanities Council, and intimately knows “the interfacing between the public humanities and scholarly research in humanities,” believes that it is vital for scholars to address humanities because “our lives depend on human connections and efforts to make sense of what is around us.”

To that end, ASU established Project Humanities in February 2010 to both present events and serve as an umbrella for listing and co-sponsoring them.

This year’s theme is “Are We Losing Our Humanity?” The fall kickoff week begins Sept. 9 and includes events with such titles as “Gaming Solutions to Societies’ Biggest Challenges,” “Being Human in a Posthuman World,” “Athletics and Sports Culture,” “Fire in the Ashes” and “Filmmaking: A Conversation With Raymond DeFelitta.” (The complete schedule is available at

The theme "Are We Losing Our Humanity?" is, according to Lester, who was named a Distinguished Public Scholar by the Arizona Humanities Council, “an effort to explain that humanities and technology and science are more integrated into our lives more than we acknowledge. Yet, we don't have to define technology and science; humanities, we do.

“Our sense of the world can only be fully experienced and understood via the lens of humanities and human interactions. And humanities research is not disconnected from this real need to explain, to question, and to make meaning daily. Thus, my sense of Project Humanities is that we are deliberately looking at everyday humanities, every day.”

Project Humanities, Lester added, “seeks to bring public programs that demystify humanities study and humanist perspectives. Project Humanities joins with the ASU institute for Humanities Research to advance and promote mulitidisciplinary research among faculty and students, demonstrating that humanities research is socially relevant, engaged and impactful.

“Explaining, analyzing and interpreting lead to new ways of thinking and new ways of doing. When ‘things’ are invented, the humanist asks, ‘What are the intended and unintended consequences?’ Humanities also gives the ‘thing’ created some larger and broader context to determine its meaning and relevance.”

ASU’s Project Humanities differs from similar programs at other universities in that ASU’s work “engages every aspect of the university and beyond – faculty, students, staff, administrators and surrounding communities,” Lester said. “Our current efforts involve making institutional connections via humanities to make an impact nationally and internationally and to attract research dollars to support our multi-pronged efforts.”

Emphasizing the importance of the humanities is not a new concept. In ancient Greece, the humanities formed the basis of a broad education. During Roman times, the concept of the seven liberal arts evolved. The seven subjects were grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.

In the 15th century, subjects such as literature and history were added to the “seven liberal arts” as the definition of a “broad education” expanded.

Today, the humanities looks at what makes us all human and the way we interact as humans. And tomorrow?

“Most recently, a Stanford University professor called for a new way of talking about humanities by moving past what makes us human to thinking about how we define and demonstrate our humanity. Notions of human have evolved via technologies and medicine; the notion of humanity hasn't, as I see it,” said Lester.