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By Emilie Hellman October 21, 2019

What’s the use?

My boyfriend is in computer science, and his greatest fears are his English and Humanities classes. Since I am in Liberal Arts, we often argue about the purpose of what he learns in those courses. He finds them irrelevant and always tries to find a SparkNotes summary of his readings. He would rather spend his time gaining technical knowledge and skills that, in his view, are much more valuable for everyday life.

We are polar opposites when it comes to our academic interests and aims. As a student in the humanities, I am gaining how-to knowledge and skills as well, and I want to be able to apply them towards personal, social and even global issues, or to support projects that address those issues. But I will admit that the techniques I am learning seem “softer” than the ones he is, and that exactly how to employ them for the greater good is still somewhat vague in my head. My boyfriend often demonstrates to me how the techniques he acquires will obviously help discover or build new things that could be useful to society, and I can’t help but agree with him that they will.

Recently, I went to see a conference lecture by professor Robert Stephens on “AI and the ‘Two Cultures.” There I learned that the term “Two Cultures” refers to the sciences and the humanities branches of learning. This concept comes from a 1959 lecture by British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow in which he posited that the intellectual class of society is split into these two cultures and that neither one values nor tries to learn from the other at all. This lecture made me think not only about my boyfriend and me, but also about my relationship to my program.

Being in Liberal Arts, I am a humanities student, and as a humanities student, I often hear from family members, friends in other programs and even sometimes teachers that my academic orientation is “interesting but useless,” and that I’ll struggle to find a proper job. On the other hand, science students rarely seem to have to worry about these comments because most people tend to think that the techniques they are acquiring will be celebrated and compensated by society. This apparent preferential treatment makes me reflect on why we teach subjects like history, philosophy, and the humanities. If they do not serve some kind of purpose to humanity, why should current and future generations study them? Now, I believe deeply that the knowledge and skills I acquire in Liberal Arts are beneficial to society. But how? 

Will the techniques I am learning in critical thinking, in forming cogent, well-constructed oral and written arguments, give me the expertise that will lead to “[…] breathtaking breakthroughs, while also transforming the way we work and interact with others […],” as written in the description for this year’s S.P.A.C.E. theme, TECHNIQUE? Will my humanities-related techniques contribute to the world?

The World Economic Forum seems to think they will. As the political, economic and environmental landscape shifts more rapidly than in any previous generation, the WEF upgraded “creativity” from #10 to #3 on their top ten list of skills that will be essential over the next fifty years. I guess techniques that simply maintain and expand the status quo––that keep us doing what we’ve been doing since the Industrial Revolution––aren’t the only ones that will be needed as we search for ways to adapt as individuals, society and a species in a changing world. Creative and critical thinking may be more important than ever.

I myself could come up with thousands of theories related to why my scholarly path is important, most of them related to how humanities are considered to be closer to ethics and morality than science. My program constantly exposes me to various philosophical, sociological and historical ideas that compel me to see the world from different perspectives and take as much as possible into consideration. This is a competence in which I pride myself and that I believe should be central in everybody’s education in the world of today where we are much more focused on the outcome or product of a process, either in a scientific, political or economical project, rather than in the techniques and approaches involved and their potential impact.  

Focusing on the ends alone might ignore some of the destructive means involved in achieving those ends, means such as exploitation of people and the planet. The humanities highlight the humanity and empathy in each of us; it develops our emotional intelligence and our capacity to cooperate with others. These qualities can greatly influence our judgement when it comes to making decisions later in both our personal lives and careers because we can better consider the influence of our actions on civilization before moving forward with any task.

I believe it is at least in part because of the lack of importance given to humanities studies and their scholars that the truly breathtaking technological and scientific advancements have not prevented us from arriving where we are now: a world raging with wars, injustice, climate change and yet also general disinterest in the issues that do not affect us personally.

About the author

Emilie is a 2nd year student in Liberal Arts.


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    January 26, 2020

    This is a beautiful piece. I found myself being able to relate to so many aspects; the existentialism, belief in humanities and fears shared specifically. Im in a science program but I find myself drawn to my humanities courses. I love to learn and I love feeling like im gaining a deeper knowledge of fundamental aspects of our world. I can relate a lot to the part where the pressure of family and friends makes people not want to pursue the arts and humanities, I am always worrying about my future and jobs. I especially love the before last paragraph, its so eloquent and makes humanities sound beautiful!

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    Dalia Baazov

    January 27, 2020

    I enjoyed reading this because I can relate in many ways. Coming from a commerce background I feel as though some of the things we learn in class are irrelevant and don’t give us much use to this world. I really enjoy my humanities courses because they focus more on critical thinking instead of just memorizing textbooks and writing essays it actually helps us improve for our future. Being able to apply what you learn in class to your life outside of school is crucial in my opinion. This is why I really enjoyed reading your piece!

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    Ethan Tapiro

    January 27, 2020

    I found this reflection truly eye opening because many of my friends are following a path in the science background where as I am following an academic path in the commerce/finance field. Many of my friends and I have similar conversations and arguments regarding which program is harder. In all seriousness I do believe that the scientific field is a larger work load but people underestimate the work loads in all the other programs. I often hear comments saying “you’re in commerce its so easy”. Which I completely disagree, people don’t have the same way of thinking nor the same study habits which means you can’t say that a program is “Easy” because firstly you’re not me and secondly you’re in a different program so you don’t have the experience to say such a thing.

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    EmmaGrace Arcadi

    January 27, 2020

    This article truly amazed me! Being a science student, I can certainly relate to what Emilie Hellman discusses in this text. Although my field of learning is mainly composed of science related courses, I always look forward to and enjoy my humanities and english courses. I truly find them enjoyable due to the fact that I am constantly learning new techniques that can be applied away from a classroom, lab, or even a textbook. Also, I could mot agree more with Emilie’s last paragraph which states the true importance of humanitie studies in relation with acientific advancements.

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    Jacob B

    January 27, 2020

    very interesting article. i was able to relate to this story.When transitioning from sciences to social sciences, i was asking myself the same questions. Will the techniques learned in this program help me achieve anything useful? Like you were able to identify, humanities courses just like any other social science courses give us a different approach to techniques. the techniques we learn in these courses help enhance our imagination, creativity and many other aspects of ourselves that others may think is useless. Many of my family members seem to think the same way and i guess that we will just have to show them otherwise.

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    January 27, 2020

    While reading this article, I felt personally connected. Coming out of a high school where most kids went into sciences, and where the administration emphasized the importance of a career in sciences, I felt insecure about the program that I chose to study in Cegep (Law, Society and Justice). Now, I’m in my fourth semester at Dawson, and I am confident in my decision, because I know that I belong in this realm of studies. I realize that science is not of utmost importance and that everyone has their own part to play in society. If everyone succumbed to this pressure and went into sciences, these disciplines would lack contribution and thus, advancements. Science is just one field of study, and it is not better than any other. History, politics, economics and psychology are all domains that society would not be able to survive without their existence and this article has made me think about this. Thank you for the insight.

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    Raquel Simon

    January 27, 2020

    I have grown up in a science-oriented household my whole life so I understand where you’re coming from. My father is a software engineer, my mother is an occupational therapist and my brother is an actuary. You can only imagine their reaction when I stopped taking sciences in high school. When I told them I wanted to go into Law, Society and Justice in Cegep, they were more understanding of the path I chose, regardless if they agreed with my decision. I too, see the value in the humanities aspect of learning. You brought up a good point that non-science programs help us see the world from a variety of perspectives and allow us to think critically rather than focus on the right and wrong answers from a textbook. Your reflection was really interesting to read and I will surely show it to my family!

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