What are Humanities Classes?
Humanities classes explore how humans have lived in the past, how we interact with one another, and how we develop cultures and societies. These classes place high value on creativity and critical thinking. Examples of humanities classes include: the arts, history, music and theater.
We often find the term ‘humanities’ to be somewhat vague, confusing or just foreign to us.
Hopefully this post will clear up that confusion and leave you with a clear, strong understanding of exactly:
- what counts as humanities;
- what courses are considered humanities;
- what you learn in humanities classes; and finally,
- give you some examples of humanities classes that you could choose to take at college.
You can navigate to any heading on this post using the below table of contents:
- ‘Humanities Class’ Definition
- Humanities vs Social Sciences: What’s the Difference?
- What do you learn in Humanities Classes?
- What Counts as Humanities Classes? (All 7 Types)
- Humanities Classes Electives that I Recommend
- What are the Real World Benefits of Studying Humanities?
- Careers in Humanities
No time to waste – let’s get started with a nice clear definition of ‘humanities classes’!
1. ‘Humanities Class’ Definition
The humanities are the study of humans. It’s that simple!
It’s the study of:
- The history of humans;
- How humans interact;
- All the various human cultures around the world;
- All the various human societies around the world; and
- How cultures and societies develop
Now, that ends up being a lot of stuff to study! And I’ll break it all down in the rest of this post.
But first, here’s two definitions of the humanities from two Universities:
- Stanford University defines the humanities this way: “The humanities can be described as the study of how people process and document the human experience.”
- Curtin University defines the humanities similarly: “The humanities refer to a range of disciplines that analyse the human experience and the natural world, and that encourage creativity, communication and critical thinking.”
Notice that the central part of these definitions is that we’re looking at, and talking about, humans! It’s not about studying mathematics, or science, or geography … it’s about simply studying what humans are and what it means to be human.
2. Humanities vs Social Sciences: What’s the Difference?
Humanities classes are distinct from all other major forms of analysis in universities.
Namely, Humanities is not:
- Social Sciences
- Natural Sciences
- Performing Arts
We often conflate the humanities and social sciences, and in many ways they tackle similar issues. However, humanities the have their own distinct ways of thinking and observing.
Namely, the humanities have these two distinct features.
Distinctive Features of the Humanities
- Interpretive methodologies (e.g. using critical reasoning and philosophy to contemplate ideas);
- The seeking of wisdom (e.g. a focus on generating insights into the human condition, ethics and what it means to be human)
Let’s compare that to the social sciences, for example, which is the humanities’ closest cousin. In the social sciences, you’re more likely to see the features listed below.
Distinctive features of Social Sciences
- Use of empirical methodologies (e.g. direct observation and analysis of the world)
- Explanations of observable phenomena
These distinctions certainly blur. There are many social scientists, for example, who engage in humanistic interpretive analysis to discuss observable phenomena. These social scientists might label themselves humanistic social scientists. I consider myself one of these.
Let’s zoom in on the two distinctive features of the humanities.
3. What do you learn in Humanities Classes?
While all humanities classes are different, below are two things that you’ll focus on. I’ve mentioned them above, but they’re fundamental to learning what you’ll be learning. So, let’s zoom on in!
a. You’ll learn to use Interpretive Methodologies
While in social sciences and natural sciences classes, you will do a lot of talking about things that happen in the world, you’ll spend much more time in the humanities contemplating the meaning of things.
You might ask questions like:
- What does a text, speech or play reveal about the nature of humanity?
- How can religion be applied to life in the 21st Century?
- What do new media texts reveal about changes in the human condition?
- What are the advantages of new media for political change?
b. You’ll learn to Seeking Meaning and Wisdom in Life
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the humanities aim to find wisdom. Their goal is a loftier one than the sciences. Indeed, their goal is to look inwardly at the very fundamentals of what it means to be human.
You might ask questions and write essays on issues like:
- How can we live a meaningful life?
- How can we seek to be more ethical people?
- What does it mean to be human?
It’s a bit of a long explanation, but I love this quote that really sums up the spirit of the humanities:
“What the humanities offer us are the fundamental building blocks of approaching life as a human being, using the full capacities that set us aside from other creatures: the ability to reason logically and independently about our circumstances, the capacity to care and to feel compassion for others, the imagination to dream up alternative futures, and the moral compass to move us in the direction we want to go. ” (Caeton, 2012, p. 21)
4. What Counts as Humanities Classes?
The following nine courses are considered humanities courses.
These are the major ones you’d list under ‘humanities’ in most universities and colleges. Some universities may make the decision to merge humanities and social sciences courses. So, this isn’t a rock solid rule:
a. Philosophy and Religion
You might consider philosophy and religion to be the ‘original’ humanities. These two pillars of scholarship have been fundamental to human thought since Ancient Greek times, over 6000 years ago.
Philosophy and Religion are so intertwined that at times in history they were one and the same. Philosophers like Spinoza who dared use logic to stray from religious dogma were ostracized by society. Indeed, many were killed.
Now, they are two branches of the same tree.
Philosophy and religion aim to use history, tradition, logic and critical reasoning to find meaning in life.
They explore issues of ethics, morality and spirituality.
Jump to: Recommended Classes on Philosophy and Religion
b. Art and Music History
Looking at the history of music and art gives us a greater appreciation of the products of human endeavour. We can see in art and music motifs about what it means to be human, the beauty and terror we see in humanity, and the common threads that bind us.
Note that art and music courses primarily associated with design and composition are generally considered performing arts rather than humanities because their focus strays from the interpretation of art to its creation (see: Humanities Indicators).
Archaeology involves the analysis and exploration of past cultures. By looking at past cultures (Western, Asian, Indigenous, etc.), we can learn about how they lived and how they understood the meaning of life.
The interesting parts about archaeology (to me, at least) are the parts that reveal insights about ourselves.
For example, archaeologists examine:
- How past cultures have influenced the present;
- How past cultures might have lessons for us to learn;
- How past cultures prioritized different aspects of life than us
d. Communication and Media Studies
Communication and media studies by and large tend to examine the present day impact of media on our lives (although there certainly are media scholars who look at the media of the past).
Media studies has enjoyed booming interest in recent decades. The rapid changes in the ways media have impacted our lives has opened up rich scholarly avenues of enquiry.
For example, many media scholars now study:
- How social media like twitter and Facebook have changed the ways we interact;
- How media holds up a mirror to ourselves and reveals things about is;
- How media has changed, influenced and reflected culture over the years.
I’d note that communications and media studies also sit quite well within the social sciences. This one would sit well within the overlap of a Venn Diagram between social sciences and the humanities.
e. Cultural, Race and Gender Studies
Cultural, race and gender studies have also enjoyed growing popularity in recent years.
Gender studies in particular has had a very heavy influence within academia, although race, ethnic, Black, Indigenous and disability studies have also had strong influences in the past.
Cultural, race and gender studies asks questions like:
- What does it mean to be a woman in contemporary western societies?
- How can we define gender identity? Is it fluid or fixed?
- Has the nature of life changed with post-modernity?
- How can racial justice and equality be achieved in contemporary western societies?
f. Language & Literature
The examination of literature and rhetoric has a long history in academia.
Indeed, all of us will have at some time in our lives examined one of the great pieces of historical literature that has examined the human condition.
Examples might include:
- Shakespearian plays;
- American Literature (e.g. Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath);
- Classics (e.g. Homer’s Illyad)
- British Literature (e.g. Pride & Prejudice)
English language and literature may look at the ways different genres of written texts have shaped the world, influenced the ways we see ourselves, our cultures and our societies, and are evolving with cultural change.
g. History and Anthropology
History classes can span the ages. Students can study modern, ancient, western and new world histories to explore fundamental questions about:
- Where do we come from?
- What shaped the 20th Century?
- How did decisions and events of the 20th Century bring us to where we are today?
- How can we learn from the mistakes of history?
- What caused the major conflicts of the past 500 years?
These questions ask us to deeply and critically examine how we should live our lives in order to hand a better world to our own descendants.
The ancient Mediterranean world – including Greek and Roman societies – were great wonders of their eras. These were great (and in many ways advanced, even enlightened) societies that that were rich in cultural significance.
What an ancient Greek and Roman literature, philosophy, politics and culture teach us about democracy, what it means to be human, and the faults that lie within each of us?
Even more interestingly, I am fascinated by how relatively advanced democratic societies managed to shake at their very foundations, crumble, and fall away. War, politics and concentration of wealth and power overcame some of the greatest civilizations in history and saw them fall to dust.
What lessons can we learn from these doomed societies, and how can we prevent a similar slide away from liberalism and democracy?
Related: Are Liberal Arts Degrees Worth It?
Linguistics is the study of language and its structure.
It is believed that the structure of language shapes human thought. By learning a new language, you learn an entirely new way of thinking about the world.
Furthermore, languages can have a fundamental impact on the ways societies are structured. The gendering of objects, the ways we issue commands and requests, and the ways we go about written communication all reveal fundamental messages about who we are and how we got here.
5. Humanities Classes Electives that I Recommend
The below classes are examples of specific humanities classes that you’ll find at most major institutions.
These are the example humanities electives I think are the most awe-inspiring, motivational and mind-bending humanities classes that’ll really challenge you to change the ways you think:
- Ethics Classes: Learn how to critically reason. Ethics is not a clear-cut issue. You will often be asked to choose the best of a bunch of bad options, and defend the ethical stance you took behind your decisions. Do you base your ethics on religion, reason, or do you not see a distinction between the two?
- Philosophy: It’ll change your life. Learn how Socrates and Aristotle progressed human thought. Laugh at the hilarious ideas ancient Philosophers had about the nature of matter, and think deeply about what you believe makes a meaningful life.
- Art Appreciation: Stop feeling stupid walking around an art museum. This may seem to be an indulgent subject, but art history might also give you a greater appreciation for how some of the greatest artists who ever lived chose to represent the human condition.
- World Religion: Whether you’re a devout believer or militant atheist, it’s worth learning about religions of the world. You’ll learn to empathize with and understand people of other cultures, which will be useful for people you interact in your future multicultural workplace.
- Non-Western Culture: It doesn’t matter which culture you choose to zoom in on. But if it were me, I’d choose ancient South American cultures. Those dudes were incredible, and we don’t talk about them enough. You’ll learn to get out of your Western bubble see the world with new eyes.
6. What are the Real World Benefits of Studying Humanities?
Humanities are often criticized for having no real world benefits.
That’s a big thing to be concerned about if you’re forking our big sums of money for a Bachelor’s degree.
I’m going to be level with you: a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) degree will be more beneficial for you in terms of finding a job.
But, there’s a ton of intrinsic value in a humanities degree for your future job.
Plus, getting a humanities degree isn’t always about workforce employability directly. Sometimes a degree is about becoming the person you’re going to become. And that has real, tangible and even intangible monetary value.
Here are just a few of the great benefits you get out of a humanities degree:
- Ability to think deeply, critically and analytically about issues. This is really important for a lot of employers. But furthermore, it’s important for you to be able to navigate your way though the world.
- Cultural and social sensitivity. If your teachers were effective, you’ll have genuinely changed the way you view the world. You’ll be able to see things from the perspective of people of various diverse backgrounds. You’ll be more capable of meeting clients’ needs, associating with people of different backgrounds to you, and befriending people across cultures.
- Understand flow-on impacts of decisions. Your background in studying historical events and how they shaped the world will enable you to navigate tough decisions. You’ll be able to lean on your knowledge to explain how decisions might impact people of different backgrounds in ways that would otherwise have been overlooked.
- Lateral Thinking. Creative, lateral thinking is a flow-on effect of your degree. You’ll have the capacity to approach challenges and problems with a deep appreciation of the ways people in the past creatively solved the problems of their times.
- Ethical Thinking. This is something in such strong demand in this world. At a time when money and utilitarianism rule the roost, there’s a need for people who have expert knowledge about the ethical implications of the actions of businesses. You could not only help your future employer avoid falling foul of the law, but you’ll be an important cog in the machinery of keeping our democracies healthy.
7. Careers in Humanities
- The skills you’ll develop in textual and information analysis in your humanities degree will put you in good stead for a career in journalism. I recommend you start early by writing for your university paper, starting a blog and seeking opportunities to write guest blogs on other sites.
- Public Relations. Humanities majors should make a big deal on their CVs about their capacity to sensitively communicate with diverse populations. Furthermore, your capacity to predict how societies and cultures will handle your company’s messaging will be an asset to your organization.
- Political and Policy Advisor. Starting in the office of a local elected official or a government bureaucracy, you can work your way up the ranks by using your critical, lateral thinking and communications skills to develop policies and campaigns of benefit to your community.
- No, not James Bond. But organizations such as the FBI, CIA (US), MI5 and MI6 (UK) need critical and lateral thinkers to work behind the scenes on issues around multicultural competencies, online reconnaissance, and intercultural communication.
- Work on legal issues within a law firm or government body. Apply your logical and lateral thinking to ensure you and your organization adhere to legal and ethical requirements.
- Community Organizer. Carve out a career in an issue you care about. Take up a position in low income, minority or immigrant communities to advocate on their behalf. Use those courses in cultural, gender and religious studies to inform your decision making and help you to communicate in intercultural contexts.
- Pass your ethical and critical thinking skills on to the next generations. Get a Masters degree in teaching to educate in high schools, or work towards a PhD to become a professor.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.