Imagine living in a world devoid of the humanities. Many Americans--though few public radio listeners--would shrug at the prospect, indifferent to or doubtful of the humanities' benefits. But in this hypothetical dystopia without philosophy and religion, most values would be assessed according to their raw value--their price or profit. Religious faith, for instance, would be reduced to a cost-benefit analysis--say, a balance between the price of certain earthly choices and the prospect of eternal bliss--rather than an appreciation of the inherent good in certain choices or, for some, in faith itself. In this dystopia, art would be a rote thing, depictions devoid of the artists’ humanity and its complexity. Beauty itself would be measurable by tools, such as calipers or a spectrometer. Your smart phone would still have a calculator app, yes, but no YouTube.
Take the fundamental feature of all human cultures: the story. One would be hard pressed to find a person who did not appreciate a good story, but without the humanities, stories would be bland recitations of known facts without the understanding, however confounding it be, that our perceptions shape the facts we observe. We tell stories not just to relate facts but--more importantly--to convey meaning.
After all, social scientists and humanists can agree that the human mind is a meaning-making machine. We find meaning even in the mundane. But, while psychologists can discover the mechanism for that drive toward meaning, it takes the humanities to recognize and even appreciate the raw power and myriad implications of the compulsion. The drive toward meaning is at the heart of the humanities: religion, philosophy, languages, classics, and the rest. In short, many disciplines of study can identify how we make meaning and even why, and those questions and their answers are vitally important. The humanities, though, are supremely, maybe even uniquely, positioned to answer a fundamentally human question: "so what?"
That "so what?" is a driving force perhaps more powerful even than compound interest. It expresses an inquisitiveness that challenges facile assumptions and relentlessly focuses on the future. There is, then, an inherent optimism to answering "so what?” an irresistible searching that redirects the human condition away from apathy and despair.
When I was still in graduate school for English, an acquaintance who was in a residency as an emergency physician was boasting how she saved lives every day. She wanted to know what good people like me did in the world. With due respect for her noble work, I pointed out that people like me make those lives she saves worth saving to begin with, that human life bereft of humanity is bereft of meaning and purpose. It is existence, to be sure, but so what?
Yes, we can live, but the humanities help us live better.