Speaking Together: What Are the Humanities For?



What are the humanities for? This was the guiding question for a course taught in the MA Program in Humanities at UChicago during Winter Quarter 2013. Two alumni reading groups on this topic will be convened in Summer 2013—and evolving iterations of the course will continue to be offered to incoming students.

We’re used to hearing about the crisis in the humanities; we’re accustomed to alarmist rhetoric about their demise and bromidic reassurances of their enduring value. But what if we think of crisis as constitutive of the humanities? What if we consider crisis as a kind of wellspring for humanistic insights?

In other words, what if the crisis isn’t a cause for panic, but rather the constantly unfolding situation in which humanists have always worked? This course sought to articulate the value of the humanities in different contexts. It then asked students to consider how the work of real-world humanities institutions (museums, non-profits, consulting companies for arts institutions, magazines, etc.) should inform or revise our definitions of the value of the humanities.

What follows is a selection of student work completed during the Winter Quarter. As participation in the course and alumni reading groups continue, we look forward to broadening the conversation about the value of the humanities as it is lived by students and professionals both inside and outside the academy. Colloquium will annually present selections from this conversation.


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Amanda Allen, The Millennial Museum:

amanda allen

The Humanities embody channels through which we can investigate and reflect upon the human experience.  Exploring the history and diverse contributions of humanity enables us to see the world and its people in new and meaningful ways.

My blog focuses on arts institutions and how these organizations fit into the project of making the Humanities more accessible, relevant, and meaningful for 21st-century citizens.


Keri Asma, Tea & Spectacles:

keri asma

Tea & Spectacles offers one perspective, via the humanities, on reading. For a word that often feels like it has a specific definition or image attached to it, “reading” is an immensely broad topic; this blog thus tries to define reading through specific reflections on literacy, literature, and the literary.What does it mean to be human, in the past, present, and future? The humanities foster conversations about this question, cultivating an understanding of human cultures throughout time.


cassieCassie Dunn, An Image of Babel:

I think the value of the Humanities at any given moment depends heavily on how they’re used rather than what they’re ‘for,’ so I’ve written a series of blog posts about what we ask of the Humanities and whether they can sustain the kinds of meanings we project onto them.


Catherine Goldstead, The Vitruvian:

catherine goldstead

To me, the humanities represent that part of what it is to be human that is not always easily quantifiable, diagnosable, or otherwise compartmentalized. Oftentimes I find experiencing the humanities can be difficult to express in words, and that is why I enjoy the challenge of literary studies in particular. The texts we’ve produced over time document unique experiences with the social, political, and scientific, and that is what I seek to dissect in my blog.


Mariah Harris, Through the Looking Glass:

mariah harris

My blog started as an attempt to take an interdisciplinary approach to that very question. My entries, however, tackled seemingly random topics, such as gun control and cancer. I am tempted to say, therefore, that the humanities are for anything and everything.

More specifically, the Humanities force us to tackle the uncomfortable distance between ourselves and the objects we encounter. They lead us to create something out of that daunting space. Conflict, therefore, becomes productive; this can be applied to everything.


Joshua Johnson, Joshua Johnson:

josh johnson

From the failures of my best guesses, the Humanities cannot be attributed to a single general or specific use. The question of “What are the Humanities for?” seems to assume the possibility of a line of thought capable of rendering an answer to this question of determining their use. But only by understanding how to ask the question as an already consciously practicing Humanist, I feel like, can one gleam the question itself is enough.

My blog should be read as a defense of Kid Rock as a lyrical poet and also as an explanation of how listeners and readers are mislead to false conclusions.


Breahna Wilson, More Than Fingerpainting:

breahna wilson

The Humanities provide a paradigm for thinking about things outside of your own experience and welcomes inclusive leadership. Through decoding and interpreting specialized language and arguments, the Humanities can be used as a tool to leverage other disciplines. MoreThanFingerPainting covers the importance of art education. Finger painting is more than a fun activity – it expands a child’s ability to interact with the world around them.

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