The Humanities

The liberal arts have always been valued in societies that have a democratic or republican form of government. These studies help people learn to have productive and even pleasant discussions among political decision makers. For that reason, the wealthy families of the city-states of Northern Italy embraced the liberal arts during the Renaissance. They also created an extended curriculum, which they called the studia humanitatis, or studies of humanity. These studies included philosophy, history, literature, languages, and art. At the time, philosophy was an enormously broad field of study. It included many subjects that were called “natural philosophy” and are now called the sciences.

Starting in the 1980s, the cost of a college education has skyrocketed in the United States. As a result, college students are under increasing pressure to major in something “practical,” such as business, rather than majoring in one of the humanities. Yet even businessmen and -women have a practical need for understanding history. Would businessmen and -women be less prone to “irrational exuberance” if they understood the history of the Tulip mania?

In 1637, a single bulb of this variety of tulip, known as “The Viceroy,” cost between 3,000 and 4,150 florins, about 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman.

During the 1630s, speculators drove up the price of tulip bulbs in the Netherlands. At the height of the tulip mania, a single bulb of a particularly desirable variety could be sold for an amount of money equal to 10 times the income of a skilled craftsman. Shortly afterward, the speculative bubble burst, and people who had invested their money in the overpriced tulip bulbs faced financial ruin.

Certainly, there is a need for vocational training. Our highly technical society would be in deep trouble if we did not have an ample supply of adequately trained accountants and engineers. Yet even people who have training in some technical field also need to have an appreciation for history.

Democracy means rule by the people. The people cannot rule unless they understand the likely results of their choices. Philosophy teaches us to ask questions about what is true or false, about what is good and bad, about what we want out of life, and about how society should be run. History can provide many lessons about why social problems happen, and how those problems can be solved. The study of languages broadens the mind. So does the study of literature.

Professor Steven Pinker has argued that the spread of literacy and especially the growth of fiction has helped to drive the moral development of society, such as movements against slavery and torture and cruelty to animals. By reading fiction, people learn to see the world from someone else’s point of view. Thus, fiction serves as “empathy technology.”

Art can also serve important political purposes. In 1937, the Spanish Republican government commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint a mural-sized paiting for display at the World’s Fair in Paris. Picasso’s painting Guernica provided an abstract depiction of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. In particular, it showed the effects on civilians and livestock of the bombing of the town of Guernica by German and Italian aircraft, at the behest of the Spanish Nationalists. This painting helped raise worldwide awareness of the political situation in Spain. Picasso insisted that the painting should not be delivered to Spain until liberty and democracy had been restored. At the 75th anniversary of the painting’s creation, Alejandro Escalona said,

Guernica is to painting what Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is to music: a cultural icon that speaks to mankind not only against war but also of hope and peace. It is a reference when speaking about genocide from El Salvador to Bosnia.

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica raised awareness of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. It remains an important anti-war icon today.
A detail from Summertime: Number 9A, by Jackson Pollock.

During the Cold War, the CIA became so concerned about the power of art to promote social change that it fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting. Supposedly, that style of art showcased the creativity and intellectual freedom of artists in the United States, as compared with artists behind the Iron Curtain. Yet opinion leaders such as Nelson Rockefeller embraced and funded Abstract Expressionist art because it depicted nothing and said nothing and could thus express no dissatisfaction with social injustice.

The humanities curriculum was developed for an explicitly political purpose: to promote productive and even pleasant conversations among members of the political elite of Northern Italy. These studies are no less important today. Only a small proportion of the population will be able to make their living in the humanities, just as only a tiny proportion of the population makes their living in professional sports. Yet the humanities enrich life for all of us, and they help to teach us to avoid making costly mistakes.