Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


On the Nature and Relevance of the Humanities

Willem B. Drees

What are the humanities? Who needs the humanities? Two questions I needed to address when I became dean of a School of Humanities. Those questions are not merely relevant in university politics. They are relevant to students and academics, and to all humans who think about humans, others and ourselves. To argue for the relevance and value of the humanities, we need to reflect on the nature of the humanities.

What Are the Humanities? The humanities are a diverse collection of disciplines, such as history, literary studies, linguistics, area studies, art history, religious studies, philosophy, and more. But, so I argue, the humanities can be understood as a coherent domain. They serve to understand others, past and present, and ourselves, our identities and arguments. This engages us as humans, with our preferences and values. But engagement is not all; the biases that may come with personal engagement need to be confronted. We should aspire to role-specific neutrality, as there is great value in knowledge that aspires to be value-free.

Who Needs the Humanities? Politics tends to promote STEM disciplines, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Many individual students opt for programs in business and management. The humanities have lost their central place. Some colleagues in the universities are nostalgic about an idealized earlier phase in history when the universities served a limited elite and the humanities focused on high culture. I do not share such nostalgia. The humanities are important for multiple reasons, for many different people. Knowing languages is useful in commerce and war. We can learn from others, and appropriate what is useful to us. The humanities are relevant to professionals, as I argue in a case study on religious and legal interpretation, where religious fundamentalists and legal originalists naively claim to be true to the original meaning of texts and laws. To students it will be valuable to develop a larger vision of humans and the humanities, and thereby a richer appreciation of their own course of studies in the larger whole of scholarship. To all, understanding the humanities is about understanding others and ourselves, and hence about scholarship and engagement.

We need the humanities for commercial purposes, for society, and for culture. The humanities have public value. But they also are valuable in themselves. The humanities are deeply human, given the material, biological, cultural, technological, and planetary beings we are.

What Are the Humanities For? by Willem B. Drees
What Are the Humanities For? by Willem B. Drees

About The Author

Willem B. Drees

Willem B. Drees, the author of What Are the Humanities For?, is a philosopher of the humanities and of religion, a former academic dean at Tilburg University and Leiden University,...

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