What Are the Humanities?

October 31, 2019 Choosing to Study the Humanities

Academic programs at colleges and universities are typically divided into areas of study, from broad categories such as the sciences and the humanities to narrower focuses under those umbrellas. The sciences are pretty self-explanatory, beginning with the broad categories of biology, chemistry, physics, and breaking into dozens of sub-branches of those areas of study. The humanities, which are less empirical, can be harder to define, however, and which programs fall under that heading can vary from school to school.

The humanities, in its broadest definition, is the study of all the ways that humanity, throughout the ages and around world, has experienced, processed and documented its history and imagined the future. It is a far reaching study that encompasses languages, art, history, philosophy, religion, music and literature, that explores cultures, traditions, beliefs, ethics and much more, often interweaving and dividing many aspects into narrower areas of study, by geography, history, genre of art or other categories.

Some broad categories of the humanities include fine arts, including literature, visual and performing arts, linguistics and languages and the social sciences, which include anthropology, technology, linguistics and law. Other areas of study are languages, religions, philosophy and history. Again, these categories are not strictly defined, may be different from school to school and can be the focus of academic debate.

Students studying the humanities typically select a specific field of study, and focus on that area. Many schools, including some community colleges, have courses that are an introduction to the humanities as a whole, allowing new students a chance to explore and better understand the subject before narrowing their focus. Some introductory classes may have a specific focus, such as Western Civilization, and will use that as a method of filtering and offering the topics, where others have a very broad focus and are more concerned with what the humanities are in general, rather than exploring aspects of the humanities.
Studying the humanities does not typically mean studying all areas, a point of some confusion for some students. It really is a way of defining and drawing together seemingly dissimilar areas of study, and of allowing scholars and students to pull disparate threads together. Undergraduate students are able to explore various aspects of the humanities before finding a particular focus, while graduate schools allow for students to explore a very specific and pointed area of study, should they wish too.

There is much to be found in a study of the humanities, and as a broad umbrella, it offers much in the way of individualizing a program of studies.