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The Role of the Humanities (2006)

A College Dean recently told Humanists at IU: "Give me the language and I will make it happen." He understood that the value and vitality of the Humanities all too often get lost beneath the attention paid to developments in technology and the sciences. Yet the enduring values of the Humanities are basic to social life. The Humanities are contemporary and forward-looking while also being fundamental and traditional. They wield tremendous influence in society, play central roles in the College and University, and should always be an essential part of any education.

The richness, variety, and quality of the Humanities at Indiana University-Bloomington are beyond dispute. There are over forty-five Humanities departments, programs, centers, institutes, and archives within the College, ranging from the Archives of Traditional Music and the Black Film Center and Archive to the West European Studies Center; and from the Departments of the History of Art, History, and the History and Philosophy of Science, to the Philosophy, Religious Studies, and Theatre and Drama Departments. In addition, seventy-five languages and cultures are taught within the College, from Arabic, Bamana, and Chinese to English, Spanish, and Uzbek.

By focusing on both the greatest and the most representational products of the human mind, the Humanities help people develop and refine the resources they need to think critically, making them more responsible members of their society. Developing the ability to think rationally enables analysis, assessment, differentiation, and independent construction of opinions, ideas, and arguments, all crucial to effective functioning in our complex modern world. The Humanities also provide historical and cultural understanding of our world that attends to the variety and diversity of people and civilizations and seeks to comprehend a multitude of perspectives on the situations and problems of life, including the implications of social and technological developments. Familiarity with historical and cultural perspectives offers a comparative understanding of precedence and change, which deepens the ability to think critically.

The Humanities foster the development of perceptual sensitivity and provide an understanding of the important relationships among meaning, value, and emotional impact that people experience when they engage expressive culture. The Humanities offer a sophisticated awareness of the many forms of language and expression that human beings encounter and use in life. Language, a central focus of the Humanities, is a major resource in mediating and shaping experience. It is bonded to thought just as thought is bonded to language, and a careful understanding of its power to effect social change is vitally important.

Through critical thinking, expressive culture, historical perspective, and the command of language (both verbal and visual), the Humanities offer forums for exploring our social and personal worlds, assessing and experimenting with ideas and values, and developing our sense of self and place in society. These resources are the essential basis of circumspect and ethical action at a time in human history when both are greatly needed.