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Study in Humanities Crucial in Digital Age?

In a story from the Telegraph-Journal (published May 30, 2011), Kwame Anthony Appiah notes that we are “drowning in the particulars of humanistic study.” More now than ever, he argues, we need the humanities to help sort out what’s important (what’s valuable and credible) from what’s not. The implications of Appiah’s position probably go beyond the now commonplace critique of  all things digital: the challenge for humanists is to fully engage the digital age, to move from critique to action?

Professor Appiah

Professor Appiah

FREDERICTON – At a week-long conference celebrating the humanities, it’s a natural question to ask: why do they still matter? Should we really study the works of philosophers long dead? Well, yes, according to one leading academic.

Kwame Anthony Appiah argued we need the humanities, perhaps now more than ever.

Appiah delivered the first “Big Thinking” lecture at St. Thomas University on Saturday, launching the 2011 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Described as “one of the most distinguished and courageous writers of our time” by Barry Craig, St. Thomas University’s vice-president of academics, Appiah is chair of the board of the American Council of Learned Societies and teaches philosophy at Princeton University.

“Shakespeare would be an unreliable guide to contemporary politics. Aristotle is an obstacle to our understanding of biology,” said Appiah. “So why do humanists turn to the past if what we seek is the truth?”

In short, because understanding our past and how we fit into that vast human puzzle, “enriches us now.”

An education in the liberal arts, said Appiah, is not a luxury for the out of touch. The keynote speaker dismissed French intellectual Pierre Bourdieu’s claim that such an education served only “to mark us off from the vulgar.”

Yes, admitted Appiah, a degree in the humanities does “permit one to show off. So can long practice in golf, but that is hardly the best argument against golfing,” he said.

The importance of the humanities, said Appiah, is to understand where we fit into our “human heritage,” even if you “can’t make a buck” from your discoveries.

Liberal arts prepare people to live their lives, not their work, he said.

Now more than ever, argued Appiah, a focus on education in the humanities is important.

In our digital age, said Appiah, we produce more information in a single day than could have been conceived of even a century ago. We are “drowning” in the particulars of humanist study, said the academic. We need the humanities to help understand what is worth paying attention to in the mountainous pile of information, Appiah said.

“We help people find, in the great flood, things they can use.”

Although a foundation in the humanities is best gained through formal education, it benefits everyone, said Appiah. Not engaging in the arts, be it reading the great novels of your time or watching the best movies of your age, is a mistake, he said.

“You’re missing out on something from your life and I believe we (humanists) can help with that.”

Liberal arts will always be relevant, he said. It is a study specific to human purposes. What we do and how we think, he pointed out, are always evolving.

Most importantly, said Appiah, the humanities help us explore what exactly is wrong with not being free, a question everyone should think about, regardless of whether they have a degree.

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