Some Meanings of "Humanities" in the University Context


1.
General/Liberal Studies or Liberal Arts: Courses tend to emphasize general skills and knowledge that extends across disciplinary boundaries, and also in some cases have emphasized content that will "make you a better person", as opposed to preparing you for a specific task. In some cases this is an attempt to recover some analogy of the mediaeval trivium, the liberal arts which were basic to all areas of knowledge. Many people do not see this as either a research area or, properly speaking, a discipline. but supports other research areas or disciplines, and is mainly for students in their early years, to inculcate a broad cultural understanding before they go on to specialize.

2.
Cooperation of Disciplines: Probably the most common sense of "humanities" in most universities is as the cooperation of a set of disciplines. This may be in institutional form, as in a faculty, or in more deliberate form, such as in a humanities centre. Typically these centres provide resources and programs that can serve all the disciplines involved.

3.
Great Books Programs: The program emphasizes overarching concepts, represented by the "classics" texts of Western thought. These concepts come out of the "great questions" or perennial issues of human concern, ones which are assumed to transcend cultural, ethnic, and gendered boundaries and bind all humanity together. We might well include "perennial questions" as a separate form of humanities as well, since it is possible to regard overarching questions about human meaning, life, death and so forth as important, but not as being contained within classic texts.

4.
History of Ideas: Although many Great Books programs are also vitally concerned with the history of ideas, I am differentiating them here. Great Books programs tend to prescribe the right ideas that everyone should know about. History of ideas programs tend to be more interested in accounting for the ideas we have and where they came from, the contexts in which they emerged, and also their limitations. In other words, there is a less prescriptive feel to these programs. History of ideas was a break-away from history, particularly the history of philosophy. It was originally seen as "soft" history.

5.
Cultural Studies: Currently, "humanities" in some universities has come to mean cultural studies. It means treating all meaningful human experience as if it is a text, and treating it as you treat texts. You interpret texts, you inquire about their authors and audiences, you look for ways in which writers try to communicate, and also try to keep you from seeing what they don't want you to see.

6.
Interdisciplinary Programs: "Humanities" sometimes refers to interdisciplinary programs