"Language is not a transparent vessel through which thought merely passes unimpeded. It is the very stuff of thinking," says R. Howard Bloch in "What Words Are Worth. In defense of the humanities" (Humanities, May/June 2009). The declining authority and interest to humanitarian disciplines at today's universities creates lots of worries among thinkers and scholars over the world. Modern pragmatism directs people and resources more and more toward social, biological, and physical sciences and less and less towards arts and letters faculties. In his article R. Howard Bloch explains why this trend creates such worries, making a very skillful sketch of humanities and showing their importance for mankind.
There was a time when the humanities did not need to be defended, says Bloch. This was in fifth-century BCE Greece, Carolingian's late eighth century, Italian Renaissance epoch, and the time between the Enlightenment and the development of the humanistic disciplines in universities of the middle to late 1800s, and eventually it was the time of the years after the World War II when people asked the reasonable question - is the pure knowledge worth something without the spice of intellectual sensitivity of art and letters.
"At high schools and colleges - says Bloch, suggesting the importance of art of language,- the humanities provide training in what the world of late antiquity called "the language arts," that is, in the modes of grammatical, rhetorical, and logical inquiry essential to understanding written texts, in the modes of reasoning needed to make crucial distinctions and to formulate concise thought, and in the precise modes of expression necessary to articulate and communicate new ideas, regardless of the field."
Where is the great value of humanities? In their qualities to create meaning, argues Bloch. "Science observes and compiles raw data that may predict the way the body or the universe behaves, yet the meaning and especially the ethical uses of such information depend upon verbal understandings and logical sequences that are the stuff of humanistic interpretation." The "pure" science that is based on mathematics, experiment, collected data and empiricism will stay idle without the "fundamentally humanistic art of interpretation." Humanities, says Bloch, teach people to recognize a significant question, to make crucial distinctions and to draw conclusions.
"The humanities also have the power to shape the human community," says Bloch. The globalizing world would be in danger without the fusing role of the great literary and art works, produced by every culture and civilization. We read these works because "they continue to reveal the enduring questions of war and peace, love and marriage, anger and forgiveness, wandering and homecoming, loyalty and betrayal, nature and nurture, good and evil, the limits and consequences of overarching pride and ambition, the enticements and constraints even of literary creation." Humanities unite the diverse cultures of our globalized world. Books, art and music are the widest window for an individual or a culture to reach and connect with the outer world.
"It is time - said Bloch - to think of the humanities not as a supplement to a more profitable course of high school and college study, a luxury, or a pleasure without virtue, but as an applied and universally applicable discipline, a way of acquiring the most essential tools for understanding the world in which we act and move." READ MORE
R. Howard Bloch is Chair of the Humanities Program and Sterling Professor of French at Yale University . He is the author of numerous books on medieval literature.