Humanities – The Definitive Guide to Getting Started

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Humanities Global International Community Communication Concept

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The humanities are disciplines that, put simply, study the intricacies of humans. Certain parts of the human species, like society and culture, are relatively unique among animals and very complicated. Analyzing them can help you understand how civilization reached where it is today and where it is going.

The humanities look at how people move, how they think, how they communicate, and how they develop culture. The main subjects in the field covered here include philosophy, journalism, library science, and visual arts. Some others in the area include language, literature, history, geography, and religion. Unlike empirical sciences such as chemistry or physics, the humanities do not rely on testing and evidence. Instead, they take a critical and speculative approach. 

If you ever find yourself wondering about these parts of humanity, then read on. I will outline the fundamentals of the humanities and provide sources for further reading and discovery.

What are the Humanities?

Science vs. Humanities

The selection of humanities articles and books I show you here take a unique path from the other four main groups of topics on this site. Whereas applied, formal, natural, and social sciences all involve science, humanities (typically) do not. Rather than the scientific method of empirical testing and observation to gather evidence, the humanities often rely on critical and speculative processes.

I don’t mean to say that the field can’t involve scientific methods and practices. But, I will say that many of the topics do not need it. By that, I mean they often aren’t trying to prove theories or solve concrete problems. For example, you can’t do much experimenting with ancient literature. You can only read it and observe how it affected human culture. Thus, the humanities usually focus on exploring human nature and skills, which is why I provide humanities readings that often aim to introduce you to new subjects and activities through guidance and a generally informative approach.

What Subjects Do the Humanities Include?

Some of the most popular fields in humanities include history, linguistics, literature, law and politics, religion, and performing arts, philosophy, journalism, visual arts, and library science. I believe they provide a strong foundation of critical thinking skills, creativity, and general knowledge.

Philosophy, for example, encompasses thought on a huge range of subjects that once, long ago, even included physics. The visual arts encourage more expression of emotions and aesthetics, as they have done for centuries. And journalism and library science work to protect and spread knowledge to all people.

What Does a Degree in the Humanities Entail?

In a humanities degree, you will learn to examine common issues and topics from both modern and past human cultures and societies. This examination aims to improve your critical reasoning abilities and communication effectiveness that are critical for many fields. Be prepared to put effort into improving both oral and written communication skills, do a great deal of reading, and discuss work at length with peers and professors. I also want to emphasize that you will need an open mind to approach the various topics from different perspectives.

Why Is a Degree in the Humanities Useful?

I frequently hear people suggest that humanities degrees aren’t as useful or worthwhile as others. But, I believe this simply is not true. While math and science are essential in the modern world, I hardly think they are the only vital fields. Furthermore, they often don’t always teach you soft critical skills like communication, teamwork, empathy, and real-world critical thinking.

But don’t just take my word for it. It is well recognized that these skills can set you up for life in a wide variety of well-paid and in-demand careers. Jobs such in areas like management, law, teaching, sales, marketing, event planning, advertising, and public relations all come to mind. And I can assure you these aren’t unimportant tasks in society. They are some of the fastest-growing fields out there.

Humanities With a Multidisciplinary Approach

As a field of knowledge, the humanities include several areas of scholarship, including language, literature, history, philosophy, religion, art, politics, and law. Within these frameworks are fields in which academic and professional careers are attainable. Ultimately, those interests revolving around society and culture land in these studies.

Interestingly, this field utilizes a multidisciplinary approach, meaning humanities subjects that have a broad range. Moreover, you will find that the topics rely on each other to develop research and theories further. Coursework, you might participate in at universities in this field often includes overlapping theoretical bases as well as requirements across multiple departments to provide a holistic approach to studying humans and their societies throughout history.

I should note that these fields are highly appealing to those interested in genuinely human endeavors like art, music, literature, and language. These disciplines play a role in nearly every culture throughout history. Studying them allows you to identify common issues, themes, and ideas that span multiple eras and places. Humanities scholars not only aim to find these connections and expound upon them, but also develop critical reasoning, effective means of communication, and unite broad areas of knowledge.

In this article, I focus on four fields within the humanities: journalismlibrary sciencephilosophy, and visual arts. I believe these disciplines showcase great academic principles as well as professional opportunities.

Humanities multiethnic group of thinking people with question mark looking up

Philosophy as the Original Humanities Discipline

One of the oldest areas of large-scale thinking and formal education, philosophy, studies the grandest questions of life. Philosophers aim to resolve these fundamental questions on knowledge, existence, reasoning, and value. However, many philosophers look to study an issue of interest and compare the resolutions of multiple other philosophers to seek understanding, rather than simply find a single answer. For reference, I provide a shortlist of the types of questions philosophers contemplate, discuss, and study:

What is it to exist? Do humans have free will, and what is that free will? Is there truth, or what is truth? If one can escape punishment, is it better to be just or unjust?

You may have asked yourself these questions as well at some point in your life. I think many of us ponder these ideas at some point in our lives. I suppose that’s what draws so many people to it throughout time, no matter how society changes.

Some other questions scholars in this field delve into religious understandings and contemplation. The ability to look at numerous frameworks of knowledge and ethics makes philosophy one of the largest areas of study within the humanities. Moreover, it is also a foundation for many other academic focuses as scholars approach resolving these grand questions from different perspectives. What they share, however, is the use of philosophical methods.

Discussing Logic and Answering Questions

In discussing philosophy, it is crucial to focus on the approach to answering questions. Thus, I focus on critical discussions, rational arguments, the continuation of questioning, and systematic presentations. These all embody the methods taken to prove perspectives. As such, many other branches of scholarship and thought derive from philosophical principles as well.

I will suggest some philosophy books that take a more in-depth look at learning some more abstract concepts. Many of the subjects in philosophy can’t be adequately explored through other methods like science. Instead, they involve deep thought and the use of logic and reason.

I believe books like Fundamental Methods of Logic can provide a solid basis for understanding and mastering this use of logic. Because logic is like a string connecting points together, it is the basis for all solid arguments. I think this book can aid you with introductory logic and critical reasoning classes, or anyone wishing to understand abstract topics or even improve debate skills.

Other books such as Metaethics from a First Person Standpoint give fresh perspectives of specific difficult topics. This particular book approaches the subject as a story based on the inner dialogue of the narrator. I recommend it because it uses clear and understandable language to help make some very complicated questions a bit easier for you to grasp.

Some additional popular topics include epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics. The words might be a bit intimidating, but they are just the study of ideas such as knowledge, right and wrong, reasoning, art, and reality in general, respectively. Now is an exciting time in the field, so I urge you to read up on the humanities books here to help you get involved.

Highly Rated Books and Courses on Philosophy

Of all the topics you can read about, I think books on philosophy will give you the biggest bang for your buck. After all, the field is primarily discussion and analysis through thought. Everything you need is right there on the pages. An excellent place to start in the area is with an uplifting read about happiness. The Happiness Hypothesis can get you thinking about the changes in people over time and what brings them joy.

Similarly, I recommend A Guide to the Good Life. It looks at one of the most famous ancient Roman schools of thought and applies it to the modern-day to guide you towards a better life. Then Letters from a Stoic takes a more, well, stoic approach to similar topics. But I am still sure that you will find the wisdom in its pages useful for improving daily life.

If you would prefer something a little more engaging than a book, you might want to try a course. There are various courses to show you specific topics like ethics or moral philosophy. You can also find generic courses like Critical Thinker Academy that cover a wide range of issues like logic, rhetoric, probabilities, and more. Whether introductory or more in-depth, there is something out there for everyone.

Subjects Focusing on Practical Studies in the Humanities

Often, I find that the perception of the humanities is that the field is theory-oriented. However, I want to make it clear here that much of what is thought about, discussed in the written form, or simply debated finds its place in practical fields. Knowledge, and how it is shared, is the real root of the humanities. As discussed with philosophy, the search for truth is inherent to humans and their pursuit of understanding. As such, people placing that pursuit into practice is a necessary feat for societies.

Writer Working in Calm Environment

Journalism

Although many people look at journalism as merely “news” and television broadcasts, I will emphasize here that the field is quite broad and encompassing. Because it is an area within humanities scholarship, it takes root in several disciplines. Notably, journalism pulls from studies of culture (anthropology) as well as philosophy.

Journalists are, by trade, newsmakers. They seek to gather information, assess its implications and value, then create and disseminate this information to the public. As such, journalists often need to make tough ethical decisions about when and where to publish their findings, which means the field of work is often considered a “whistleblower” field that enables the public to be better informed about controversial political and social currents. I certainly appreciate this, as it allows me to be aware of the people and governments that pose a danger to peace and other positive aspects of modern life. For this reason, journalism also holds a special place in democratic societies. In other words, the significant role of journalism permits a more democratic political environment in which citizens like you and I have more information with which to make decisions or cast votes.

Scholarship within the field aims to identify ethical parameters for journalists, best applications for journalistic content development, and links between media studies and other areas. Academically, it is still a somewhat growing area that continues to explore its limitations and applications. If you’re new to the field, you might start with an article that explores various types of journalism to find out which is right for you. I would also suggest investigating potential universities to attend and the qualities of careers in the field.

Reading Material in the Field of Journalism

In this category, I introduce humanities books that open the door to many useful skills for journalists. Of course, one of the fundamental basics for any journalist is writing. I recommend books such as The Simple Math of Writing Well, which straightforwardly addresses this topic. Anyone can improve their writing abilities, from those just trying it out to those who are already professionals in a writing field.

I also try to include books that take into account the effects of the modern world. For example, writing in the digital age is of great importance, but how we do it varies significantly from a few decades ago. Email, instant messaging, fast news, and social media have a different feel and different rules. Adapting to changes through time requires flexibility in writing skills, and these humanities books can help you gain such flexibility.

Similarly, books like The Data Journalism Handbook take reporting to a new level. The power of data is increasingly important in a world of abundant but often misleading information. I recommend that students and professionals take notes on backing up their claims in a reliable manner.

Highly Rated Books and Courses on Journalism

If you want to get ahead in journalism, I suggest first looking back in time a bit. Reading The Bully Pulpit will give you a good look at the “Golden Age” of journalism during the time of Roosevelt and Taft. With that knowledge, you’ll have a solid background in the dramatic events within journalism.

For a more first-person and personal story of the more recent past, I recommend Working by Robert Caro. You’ll get a glimpse of this reporter’s life and crucial moments in the history of journalism. Then, if you are more interested in performing journalism than reading about others who have done it, check out the Associated Press Guide to News Writing. It narrows down on the nuances of writing compelling but high-quality pieces.

Not all journalism is on high-end TV channels or in the meeting rooms of huge newspapers. Many people at least start in and often make careers of freelance journalism and staffers. That’s why I want to steer you towards the course How to be a Journalist – The Complete Guide to Journalism. It will help you not only with writing pieces but also getting into actual jobs that will pay you for them.

Another course, Mobile Video Journalism, helps with the filming side of jobs like these. Not everyone needs professional-grade cameras; what matters is the content and how you present it. But if you have your heart set on the big leagues, I recommend starting with the basics of putting forth a professional face. Journalism – TV Reporters, News Anchors Look Great on TV will help you appear poised and authoritative on camera wherever you work.

Humanities Student talking to a librarian in a library

Library Science

Library scientists invest in many elements of managing not only libraries but knowledge in general. The field of library science is inherently multidisciplinary as a field in the humanities. I will show you how it takes into consideration numerous perspectives, including how and where to disseminate information.

Before getting to modern library science, I would like to start with a brief history. Studies in library science began around the mid-17th century. At that time, it was an accomplishment to establish a library to collect written works. In the 19th century, scholarship had expanded dramatically with numerous written works circling the western hemisphere in particular. Melvil Dewey designed the famous decimal system, forging a new reason for library management and scholarship on information management. As technology continued to boom through the 20th century into the 21st century, data management became the apparent issue for library scientists.

Modern Library Science

Today, there is an enormous amount of focus on access to information and working toward equity of dissemination. And this is because of a rise in misinformation where people (often purposefully) spread untrue information. Usually, this is done out of malice and towards an end of misguiding people. Other times, out of ignorance. The articles I present in this category of the humanities will show you current events and trends such as these in library science that are important to know if you are looking to get into the field.

Speaking of modern developments, humanities books on library science will show you how this field has stood its ground over time. This interesting niche is about more than just libraries. Instead, it encompasses the essence of learning and making knowledge accessible to all. Thus, as times change, so do the methods of libraries and librarians.

Libraries adapt to digital resources, embracing the accessibility they provide. Librarians don’t judge the new information age but do their best to keep up with the waves of new material so that they can help spread it to pupils. I recommend books such as The Information Literacy User’s Guidewhich shows students how to use all of the available modern tools without getting overwhelmed. Gathering, analyzing, and presenting findings from any topic becomes a breeze with a step-by-step guide on doing research.

For educators and professionals, on the other hand, I think books like A Field Guide for Academic Librarianswill help create their open educational projects. The idea of library science books is that price, and other restrictions shouldn’t keep students from learning in any field.

Highly Rated Books and Courses on Library Science

I think a great example of the depth of history and the effects of libraries on society can be found in The Library Book. Reviewers call it “Marvelous” and “Very Special” for the author’s ability to go down the rabbit hole of the mystery of a catastrophic library fire while simultaneously reflecting on the past, present, and future of the library system in the US.

For a more academic introduction to the field, I suggest Foundations of Library and Information Science. It thoroughly covers how changes in society, technology, politics, and the economy affect users and institutions in the field. Then, an Introduction to Cataloging and Classification gets straight into one of the essential duties of librarians.

Courses online can also help significantly in learning these duties, especially since many new librarian duties involve technology. Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods helps you learn about collecting data, doing interviews, conducting research, and more. Similarly, Research Methodology goes into various types of research and analysis relevant for academia, business, and journals. And for some useful tools in day-to-day work as a librarian, I recommend something like Apps for Librarians and Educators. It will explore some highly helpful mobile apps for enabling learning and creating content.

Humanities Topic Visual Arts - Colorful brain doodle illustration with textures

Visual Arts

Painting, drawing, sketching, sculpting, photography, film-making, architecture — these are a few of the big-name visual arts. This body of scholarship and design encompasses both the fine arts and the applied arts. People often base the distinction between these two on functionality. Fine arts do not hold functional value in the traditional sense, whereas applied arts incorporate decorative elements in designs intended for use.

However, I should emphasize that the visual arts do not only study types of art. Scholars in the field often seek meaning from artists in addition to studying the methods of production of the piece. In this search for meaning and the emergence of interpretation, the field gains a large body of scholarship. Meaning can relate to personal feelings and experience, or make comments on political and other events of the time. Sometimes I venture to say that the meaning is obvious; other times, you will find it is quite subtle. Studies in the field will often argue over intent in a piece or interpretation of the message from the artist.

For those who participate in the creation of visual arts, studying the world around them is critical. Regardless of the medium, artists who study visual arts and actively create them often draw from a specific source of inspiration. That source then represents an era, a culture, a place, etc. In the act of recording people and their worlds, the visual arts take root in the humanities.

Visual Arts Reading Material to Start With

I know that certain aspects of visual arts can be tough to teach through books. For instance, most of the skills you gain in painting or sculpting will come with practice. However, other parts of the field require a fair amount of reading and reflective thought. And introductory subjects, in particular, can contain a lot of technical information that needs to be absorbed before students can get hands-on.

For example, working in a theater can mean doing much more than putting on costumes and acting in front of an audience. Behind the scenes of theater production, things can get pretty complicated. In this area, I recommend An Introduction to Technical Theater. It goes into the nitty-gritty of logistics, sound, lighting, equipment, and other parts of production.

Another practical resource I suggest in this category of humanities books is Exploring Movie Construction and Production. It focuses on movies and how they’re made, giving the perfect resource for film students or curious readers. From script to screen, you’ll learn about the details that make a genuinely great movie. Those students in film criticism, acting, directing, and scriptwriting also find it useful to apply to their work.

Highly Rated Books and Courses on Visual Arts

First, I want to introduce you to what some reviews call a “life-changer.” Stunning Digital Photography is frequently on lists of the best photography books in the world, and for a good reason. It takes you from beginner to experienced photographer by fusing the book with 14 hours of video. Plus, you will have access to quizzes, forums, and a Facebook page with a helpful community.

For something that focuses more on the culture and story of the visual arts, I recommend Gateways to Art. It emphasizes the visual culture that results in contemporary art and analysis of seminal works. Art: A Visual History also goes more into the analysis, such as telling Expressionism from Impressionism and other stylistic differences in art.

Speaking of contemporary, much of modern art isn’t just about creating for creation’s sake. We all need to make a living somehow, and courses like Contemporary Artist can help you do that. It goes over art history as well but shows how you can apply it to marketing and business. However, you can also find courses on pure technique, such as How to Paint From Beginner to Master. And classes like Sculpting in Zbrush can help you gain skills amid the highly important emergence of digital art.

Humanities Frequency Asked Questions

I have included some quick notes here to help you get straight to the point of the essential topics in this article. You will find more details above, but the gist is below:

What subjects do the humanities include?

The humanities include topics about how people move, how they think, how they communicate, and how they develop culture. The main subjects covered here are philosophy, journalism, library science, and the visual arts.

What does a degree in the humanities entail?

Like any university program, a degree in the humanities will include a set of core classes in a variety of subjects. Then, students have the opportunity to select courses of their interest in specific humanities fields. Towards the end of the program, students of the humanities may do final artistic projects, performances, or research theses. The primary skills gained by inhumanities programs include critical thinking, creativity, empathy, and analysis.

What is the difference between the sciences and the humanities?

The sciences use empirical methods of testing ideas by using evidence. The humanities focus more on observation, speculation, and history. However, some areas of the humanities can and do use empirical approaches.

What jobs can you do with a degree in the humanities?

There is a range of jobs that focus on areas in the humanities, including teacher, technical writer, artist, counselor, journalist, public relations manager, and therapist.

Big group or crowd of various professionals

Conclusion

The humanities are a critical part of the work, study, and life of any human.

Even if we don’t realize it, aspects of communication, information, and critical thought are all part of who we are and how we live.

Studying these areas can give you a leg up in many areas of life, from school, to work, to personal relationships. You can improve your writing skills that are necessary for pretty much any field. You can also pick up skills that are specific to unique fields like library science and journalism that perform essential tasks for society.

Pick up one of the books I mentioned above to see just how relevant the field is in so many ways. The materials I outline here all contain thoughtful structures meant to guide you from start to finish. Many of them provide diagrams and visualizations to demonstrate their points. Some even include examples of ways to practice ideas. I am confident that struggling students can use these materials to engage their curiosity and open up their minds to new ways of thinking. Try out a combination of pairing books with online articles and courses to maximize your potential improvement.

How have fields in the humanities affected your life? Do you think more emphasis should be placed on skills in the humanities?

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