Introduction to the humanities

What makes us human?

What drives us as humans? As Robin Williams’ character, John Keating says in the 1989 film, The Dead Poets Society, “poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” How has a desire for beauty, love, discovery, conquest, and freedom informed our world, and more specifically, the West?

What are the humanities?

The humanities are branches of study focused on culture, values, and other ways that humans express themselves, like literature, art, history, philosophy, and religion. The idea of the humanities originates in Greece with paideia, or general education beginning with the Sophists in the fifth century BCE. The goal of these studies was to prepare young men to be good and active citizens and Cicero’s humanitas, which prepared young men to be orators.

What is Western civilization?

Consider the assumption that is made about the notion of Western civilization. Our course, Humanities 1, is entitled, “Intro to Western Culture.” “Western Culture” is generally used synonymously with “Western civilization.” But are we assuming the existence of such a thing? Are there arguments to be made that these notions are unrealistic fabrications built on false assumptions? In the article entitled, “There is No Such Thing as Western Civilisation,” author Kwame Anthony Appiah claims that, “The values of liberty, tolerance and rational inquiry are not the birthright of a single culture. In fact, the very notion of something called ‘western culture’ is a modern invention.” To identify the West is to contrast it with the East, or the South, or stereotypically non-Christian countries, particular the Muslim world. Often South America is left out of the West. The West is almost always White. For our purposes, we will stretch some of these boundaries while staying within the academic confines of “Western civilization.”

Perhaps the notion of the East versus West is not one you subscribe to, but historically, this differentiation is significant. The East traditionally includes Asia, while the West typically includes Europe and the Americas (and that leads a lot of places out of this equation). As the world evolved, people learned more about the East and West, and the divide became less significant. But the physical divide led to an ideological divide, a cultural divide, a philosophical divide. For this course, we will focus on the evolution of the West, starting with Greece (which was undoubtedly influenced by north Africa and the Middle East), Europe, and then the Americas as they were explored, conquered, and inhabited. Western civilization is influenced by ancient Greek philosophy; Judeo-Christian values; the ideals of the Enlightenment, including democracy, individualism, and science. In contrast, the East  has more diverse cultural and religious traditions that often emphasize the collective rather than the individual and spiritual pursuits rather than science. These are, of course, generalizations.

Why should we study the humanities?

And why should we study them? In “What are the Humanities,” Reverend Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch explains that, “The ancient command ‘Know thyself’ is a good starting motto in the humanities, because an effort at self-knowledge is the best and perhaps the only starting point for understanding the bewildering problem that is another human being.” So the Humanities are an effort to better understand humanity.

In “Practicing the Humanities,” Amanda Anderson explains the value of the Humanities and how studying the Humanities can transfer to job skills in all fields.


“Practicing the Humanities: Amanda Anderson” by TED is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Who should study the humanities?

Are the humanities just for liberal studies majors? What is the value of the Humanities for all students? In “Why Tech Needs the Humanities,” Eric Berridge explains the role of the Humanities in providing context and teaching critical thinking.


“Why Tech Needs the Humanities: Eric Berridge” by TED is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

What does it mean to be Americentric?

As you study the humanities, consider whether you have an Americentric point of view. To be Americentric means that you have a conscious or unconscious assumption that the United States is superior to other countries. Is there anything wrong with Western Civilization? Dr. Onkar Ghate and Yaron Brook explain what is distinct about Western culture, which is that it is pro-reason.


Is There Anything Wrong with Western Civilization?” YouTube, uploaded by Ayn Rand Institute, 26 Mar. 2003.

Questions to Consider: Are the humanities just for liberal studies majors? What is the value of the Humanities for all students?


Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “There Is No Such Thing as Western Civilisation.” The Guardian, 9 Nov. 2016,

MacCulloch, Diarmain. “What Are the Humanities?” The British Academy, 15 Nov. 2018,


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Being Human Copyright © 2023 by Jacqui Shehorn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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