The Direct Benefit of Humanities

Occasionally I’m asked about the significance of humanities education in a time when more and more students are flocking to STEM programs and trade schools. It’s seems simple to me but my answer tends to catch people by surprise...

Not to take away anything from STEM topic, or to suggest that every student would be better suited to a liberal arts focus, but integration of some degree of creative disciplines, cultural understanding and explorative education in the arts into one’s education stands to greatly benefit students. In addition to the often referenced practical, academic and job- related outcomes, combining study abroad and liberal arts topics has an effect in which the Whole is more than the sum of both parts.

In a nutshell, humanities teaches us to think in humanistic ways about communally accepted life narratives and values, of other groups and importantly, including our own. Cultural immersion outside of one’s comfort zone elicits a comparison of one’s own narratives and those developed in other circumstances by other groups. Where these two elements are combined, the potential comparison creates a mirroring effect whereby we can view our own individual perspectives, cultural frameworks and values as less than universal, as somewhat influenced by our surrounding environment and upbringing. To embody this understanding is to become vastly more empathetic to the situations and beliefs others find themselves in or accrue.

Where both studying abroad and humanities education share the goal of critical and creative introduction to new ideas, the academic and experiential activities of the student can work together to challenge the individual creative potential. It is common knowledge that when we are stuck, a good night of sleep, a relaxing bath, a change of scenery can draw us nearer to the desired flow state by which ideas readily come and during which creativity and innovation seem to come freely and without force. Choosing a task you love and understanding the importance of the task are two essential prerequisites to reaching that condition. This is why we have woven in not just factual information but reflective and creative activities to ensure students personalize new knowledge and experience and learn not just how to have FUN abroad, but how to turn their future life experiences into growth opportunities.

Fiction and culture studies may be criticized for their impracticality. However, they contain keys to understanding different possibilities in the essential practice of interpretation of life events. Reading fiction helps to shape the characters that create motivation, inspiration, disgust, respect and even hatred in the reader, and help the reader to see their own actions in a larger frame. They can provide essential guides and heroes like Odysseus or Matilda. They can provide a feeling of compassion and understanding for students who aren’t finding it in their immediate social circles.

So what, you say? This can be found in films. We have Iron Man, we have Wonder Woman, literature iis outdated. The main difference here is that when viewing a movie you must conform your impression more absolutely to that of the director. The image, the specific qualities of the character are cast in a predefined light. How different is it seeing a movie after having read a book? The discrepancy can be displeasing for those who had formed impressions of their favorite characters in their minds before seeing them on screen. That ability to create and develop the characters as they best fit to one’s current life situation is the same ability it takes to imagine possibilities of individual character as developed in oneself. Therefore, reading fiction, and specifically fiction, where there is still a creative license in the reader, and to a greater degree creative writing in itself, have a vast potential to foster self reflection and self development according to one’s own examined ideas, principles and values.

Lastly, it seems obvious but humanities topics are fun. Literature, music, languages, arts, and cultural studies are easily engaging when taught in an immersive way. You can read about mango sticky rice and look up pictures online, or you can buy it from a local street vendor and eat it from a leaf while walking through a crowded Thai marketplace towards the beach. You choose.

Jennifer Norris