Yolanda Merrill

Humanities and Reference Librarian, Assoc. Prof.

What are the humanities?

The humanities can be described as the study of the myriad ways in which people, from every period of history and from every corner of the globe, process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world. These modes of expression have become some of the subjects that traditionally fall under the humanities umbrella. Knowledge of these records of human experience gives us the opportunity to feel a sense of connection to those who have come before us, as well as to our contemporaries. Within the contemporary American university, the humanities are comprised of a group of academic departments that deal with these questions.

Why are the humanities important?

Insights Into Everything

Through exploration of the humanities we learn how to think creatively and critically, to reason, and to ask questions. Because these skills allow us to gain new insights into everything from poetry and paintings to business models and politics, humanistic subjects have been at the heart of a liberal arts education since the ancient Greeks first used to them to educate their citizens.

Understanding Our World

Research into the human experience adds to our knowledge about our world. Through the work of humanities scholars, we learn about the values of different cultures, about what goes into making a work of art, about how history is made. Their efforts preserve the great accomplishments of the past, help us understand the world we live in, and give us tools to imagine the future.

Bringing Clarity to the Future

Today, humanistic knowledge continues to provide the ideal foundation for exploring and understanding the human experience. Investigating a branch of philosophy might get you thinking about ethical questions. Learning another language might help you gain an appreciation for the similarities in different cultures. Contemplating a sculpture might make you think about how artist's life affected her creative decisions. Reading a book from another region of the world, might help you think about the meaning of democracy. Listening to history course might help you to have a better understanding of the past, while at the same time giving you a clearer picture of what the future holds.

How is humanities research reshaping our future?

Examining the Past to Understand the Future

Humanities research often involves an individual professor researching in a library in order to write a book. The books that result from this study are part of an ongoing dialogue about the meaning and possibilities of human existence that reaches back to ancient times and looks forward to our common future.

Scholar Collaboration

However, humanities research also draws from other sources and often requires alternative methods of investigation. A research project may involve several professors and/or students sharing information. A professor may collaborate with a colleague in another area of study to gain alternative perspectives on a topic.

A scholar might publish research in-progress in an on-line journal to solicit feedback from others in her field. Some professors develop projects with the classroom in mind and engage their students in research projects. Other projects require the gathering of original information by doing fieldwork which could entail interviewing people, unearthing artifacts or documenting the history behind an archive of photographs.

An Interpretive Approach to Research

A hallmark of humanistic study is that research is approached differently than in the natural and social sciences, where data and hard evidence are required to draw conclusions. Because the human experience cannot be adequately captured by facts and figures alone, humanities research employs methods that are historical, interpretive and analytical in nature.

Professors who engage in humanities research are often posing questions about common assumptions, uncovering new meanings in artistic works, or finding new ways to understand cultural interactions. This type of inquiry can produce clearer pictures of the past, uncover the many insights that we can draw from our forbears, and in turn, help us better prepare for the future.

--text adapted from Stanford University