‘No Right Answers”, Nicolas Shumway, Humanities

Work in the humanities is very open-ended. There’s no such thing as an absolutely right answer. Everything is mediated by interpretation. Humanists are not indifferent to empirical evidence, but we work a lot with the interpretation of evidence and sometimes in a world where plausibility is more important than a narrowly defined truth. For example, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is much more interesting and profound than anything we can say about the historical Macbeth based on the evidence. Or said differently, Shakespeare’s play offers a kind of truth that cannot be gleaned from historical fact.   Another element in the humanities that is absolutely different from the sciences is that there’s no such thing as obsolescence in the humanities. Nobody would say, for example, that Plato is obsolete, or that Shakespeare has been disproven. Scientific method insists that you have a hypothesis, that you prove the hypothesis through evidence and reason, and that you continue testing the hypothesis until its disproven. One can talk easily about scientific progress. Those kinds of concepts don’t exist in the humanities at all. We demonstrate things. We provide evidence for things. But our subjects don’t become obsolete.   A sense of history and of the past are always present in humanities classes. I believe this to be one of the humanities’ unique strengths. If you take a philosophy course, you’re studying the history of philosophy. If you take an English Literature course, you’re studying the history of English Literature and its contexts. The past is not involved in other disciplines in the same way. I hope that students become conversant with the humanities because that dialogue with the past is a very important part of being human. We do not live solely in the present; we live in the context of previous generations. We stand on their shoulders. And how can we not be moved by the fact that our predecessors also knew love, fear, hope, kindness, evil, happiness, and temptation? The humanities, more than other disciplines, give us a sense of our connection to the past and to a human community that transcends generations.