A More Human Humanities

By Spencer W. Glassman

The Humanities Inferiority Complex

The paucity of time mandates that we spend it on things that are good in and of themselves. We often hear of the importance of sacrifice. But sacrifice has never meant doing something bad so that a good may later appear; instead, sacrifice can be more accurately defined as doing something which does not appear to be good, but actually is. Though goodness existed from the beginning, it became apparent later.

Such is the case with the study of the humanities. The humanities are the disciplines of the soul. They are immaterial, but not abstract. Philosophy, at its best, is practical and even urgent. We study the humanities because they help us understand what it is to be human. Understanding something fully means also comprehending its “telos.” The true humanist is pushed towards pursuing a more good life because of his studies.

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Why I Study History

I am envious of those who kept a journal throughout their childhood. They have amazing access to the full range of their past: from the quotidian to their most profound experiences. Those of us who did not keep such detailed writings about our lives are left to whatever happens to be stuck in our head. When I look back on high school and cannot recall the general events of one typical day — as opposed to the extraordinary variety — I feel that I do not know myself as I normally am. Of course, this raises the question: Are our true selves revealed at our most jubilant and despondent or at our most mundane? Memory answers a fundamental need in humans: to know oneself. Memory does not simply guide us in avoiding mistakes and making decisions in the present, but it forms us into complete beings.

Imagine what you would be if you had no memory; if the present had a monopoly on existence. One cannot exist without a past. The emptiness of a life without memory extends to the case of any group, whether it be a family, state, civilization, or the collective society of humanity. At its core, this is why we must study history, to answer “Who are we?”

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Make Teachers, Not Ph.D.'s

Almost all teaching staff at Harvard have a doctorate or are pursuing one. From teaching fellows to professors, the Ph.D. path seems to be the essence of qualification. Without a Ph.D. it is almost impossible to teach at any elite American university. We must ask ourselves: What is it about the degree that gives it such a special quality?

The doctoral degree greatly emphasizes research and specialty, but the undergraduate needs a teacher with broader sympathies, skill in pedagogy, and a concern for the non-academic growth of the student above all else.

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