Whether you’re entering college for the first time or considering going back, you may already have a plan in mind. Most curriculums have at least a minimum humanities requirement, usually electives if the major isn’t humanities-related. There’s good reason for this - the term "Humanities" encompasses an enormous range of fields and disciplines that all have one thing in common - they are the study of us. Where we came from, where we’re going, how we express ourselves, how we interact - in short, what it means to be human.
You probably take being human for granted, after all, you’ve never been anything else. But imagine a visitor from another planet coming to Earth and learning about us for the very first time as a complete outsider (watching a lot of Star Trek helps with this). Sure, the human race is made up of a bunch of different colors, races and cultures, but we’re all human. We all have the same basic needs, wants, and tendencies. Perhaps our alien visitor studied us before his arrival, so he wouldn’t be completely in the dark. His curriculum would have echoed that of the humanities department of any university.
No study of any race is complete without the study of their art and the history and evolution of that art. Now combine the art from all the cultures in the world to form a single multidimensional timeline, that stretches from primitive cave art to modern-day advertising - what does it say about the human race? How would our visitor reconcile the chiaroscuro of the Renaissance with the manga popular with today’s youth? How would Gothic architecture tell the story of its time? Courses like art history and appreciation put our creative legacy in perspective.
Music is another big one. Music is a basic need of the human soul, and it didn’t take primitive people long to realize that banging rocks together produces a beat, and blowing on a reed makes a melody. Music is a part of everything from religion to leisure, and is so interwoven with our lives that our culture has given rise to the "Earworm". Different places produce different sounds, but the human need for music is universal. We boast a history of musical genius that soars to the heights of Mozart and sinks to the depths of contemporary pop. Music appreciation classes can teach you to make sense of it all.
Drama is a relative latecomer to human history, but it has been an integral part of religion, entertainment and everyday life since its inception. From Egyptian religious pageantry to Shakespeare to reality television, the history of human drama reflects the living conditions at the time of creation. Drama and drama appreciation classes will help you see how art imitates life, but life also frequently imitates art.
The spoken and written word is vital to the human race. Imagine a world where communication was impossible. You may be fluent in multiple languages, or you may have tried and failed - either way, you understand how complex language can be. Imagine our visitor having to come to terms with the multitude of language spoken on our planet, and the fact that the dominant language frequently changes when you cross an invisible, arbitrary line in the ground. Sure, a universal translator would be best (see Star Trek). But in its absence, a deep understanding of root languages would help. Courses like linguistics teach you how language originates and evolves over time to facilitate more efficient communication according to the needs of the speakers. Individual language courses (English, Italian, French, Mandarin, etc.) teach you the languages themselves. By immersing yourself in the language, you gain a deeper understanding of the more nuanced aspects of a culture.
Oh, history. Depending upon which way you’re looking, human history goes back as far as seven million years. From the emergence of our hominid ancestors to the first Homo sapiens, to the first society, to the first city and so on, the amount of information is so huge, it had to be split into several entirely different fields. Anthropology takes the long view, exploring changes over vast swathes of time, while period history delves deep into the happenings of a specific time span. Archaeology looks at physical changes, while sociology focuses on emotional changes and the way humans interact. By studying where we’ve been, we can learn from our mistakes and dictate where we’re going. History does repeat itself, but if you know what went right or wrong the first time, you come out better the second time around.
At the root of the matter, religion and philosophy are basically about how we humans see ourselves. Most religion is founded on philosophy (as least loosely), and learning about the two together provides a greater understanding of the subject matter. Both fields are a reaction to living conditions - religion reflects the way things are, and philosophy reflects the way things should be. Unfortunately, we humans disagree on these two topics more than anything else, and we have caused our race deep distress over these issues. But the more educated you become, about the topic, the more likely you are to engage in nonviolent debate rather than a potentially violent knee-jerk reaction.
Overall, the humanities provide us with a greater understanding of who we are, and how we got to be this way. These things don’t go away - we add to them every single day. But the more you know about things like art and music, the more beauty you see in life. The more you understand about sociology and anthropology, the easier it will be to understand people and appreciate their differences. The more you study philosophy and religion, the easier it gets to accept and listen to opposing viewpoints. Know thyself - revel in what it means to be human - your life will be the richer for it.