What is Humanities?
The very essence of the Humanities is captured by this course, the Davidson liberal arts approach to a holistic education. It is how we interact with texts and artifacts and make connections across disciplines to study the human experience in its entirety. Although each one of us in the program is connected through this course, we are all different in what we contribute to and take away from it. Therefore, the Humanities at Davidson cannot be determined as just one thing, and perhaps even more importantly, it is always evolving.
When I think of Humanities, affectionately known as Humes, I think of collaboration, interpretation, and unconventional learning. Humes is a series of learning, teaching, and growing that is subjective to each individual, similar to our discussion of truth and knowledge in Unit 1. We learn by questioning, engaging in difficult and uncomfortable conversations, and drawing from our own prior knowledge and experiences. Perhaps more importantly, Humes is about fostering empathy and compassion, both for others and ourselves. That is why we engage in complex texts like Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda and Black Venus, but it’s also why this course is ungraded, we go through several revision processes for our writings, and we are encouraged to take risks. If you ask any Humester, they will say that there is no “right” way to approach the course because it is fluid, it is a process. Just as truth is subjective, so is learning, and so is the Humanities.
The (lowercase) humanities is a collection of disciplines that collaborate to answer the question: what is the human experience? It is, for example, my World Civilizations and Culture (World Civ) class from 9th and 10th grade in high school. World Civ I specifically focused on answering that question and defining the human experience, while World Civ II studied European history and the introduction of the modern world (our final question of the class was, does the moral arc of our current world bend towards justice?). Between the two of them, World Civ I definitely hits closer to the mark of how I understand the humanities, simply because of the way it was taught. Described as a combination of English, history, and art to understand the world and its foundations to incoming students, we interacted with literature and cultural representations of the past, and we connected them to the present. The connection to the present is one of the defining characteristics of the humanities because the human experience is a constant cycle: there is overlap between what humans experienced 500 years ago and what we experience today. For example, through our examination of religion, history, mythology, literature, art, and architecture, we discovered that humans are unified through our shared experiences of suffering. However, it is vital for our evolution that we use this understanding to learn from past mistakes.
During Professor Robb’s introductory lecture in Sapere Aude, he listed several tendencies of the humanities: normativity, interpretation, essential contestability, and empathy. You may notice an overlap between these tendencies and the characteristics of the Humanities. That’s because Humes is the canvas on which we (Humesters) are currently exploring the humanities. By studying the humanities, we can learn more about ourselves and those around us. Learning from others, whether that be through a narrative, a photo, or a painting, unlocks our ability to empathize with those who are different from us. We are able to understand someone else’s pain, their joy, their human experience, which allows us to humanize them no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, or “otherness”.
In Unit 1, we watched Adichie’s “The Dangers of the Single Story,” which explained how power discrepancies and social patterns of oppression decide whose story is told and how they are told. Therefore, we rarely hear from the oppressed and almost solely get the victor’s point of view. That is why the Humes approach to the humanities emphasizes a diversity of perspectives. In Unit 2, Professor Green introduced us to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, which has historically been used to amplify marginalized voices and address complex social issues. Additionally, we examined how performance builds community, which can promote an emotional connection with and build empathy towards those who have lives very different from our own.
In Unit 3, Professor Fache walked us through the lives of three different black women, each their own Black Venus, to understand how black female bodies have been objectified and subject to abuse across time and space. Our lesson on Sara Baartman and watching Black Venus forced us to reckon with a dark, uncomfortable time period in history that is often overlooked or glossed over by the American Education system. However, it was vital that we studied her first so we could understand the context in which the following two black women were affected by this history. While studying Josephine Baker, we connected society’s acceptance (or lack thereof) of her body onstage to Professor Green’s unit about how performers use their bodies to make a statement and connect with their audience. By putting different academic disciplines, theories, and lectures in conversation with each other, we walked away with a better understanding of Josephine Baker, the surrounding society and social climate, and similar trends from her story that repeat themselves throughout history.
Unit 4 discussed the limits of compassion and whether or not humans have become desensitized to the constant trauma and suffering we see in the media. Ironically, we are sometimes less empathetic to photos of war or poverty in Africa despite the aforementioned practice of interacting with diverse stories to empathize with others. Maybe we are experiencing empathy overload and our instinct is to reject the discomfort, or perhaps we can connect this back to the complex of colonialism and white superiority. Either way, this disconnect allows us to ignore the fact that another’s suffering is not an isolated occurrence, because we are all connected in our humanity and our shared human experience. Gourevitch stressed the fact that the Rwandan genocide was not just a problem for the Rwandans, and further, the entire international community was responsible. In general, hearing other people’s stories enables us to identify our shared quality of humanity with people from across time and space, and it forces us to bear witness to the vast human experience.