Definition of the Humanities



I. Humanistic tradition

            The Humanities of Latin America (HUM 2461) explores the human cultural legacy of the region defined on another page as Latin America. This legacy has developed through fifteen millennia during which time various peoples have created ideas (philosophy), beliefs (religions), achievement, tools, habitats, and artifacts (art, architecture) of lasting value, and they have handed them down from one generation to the next. Peoples in the Western Hemisphere have dealt with their own specific physical context (oceans, jungles, mountains, etc.) and hardships (wars, diseases, etc.) in ways unique to the conditions found in the lands located between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Both individuals and groups of people have produced the objects, ideas, and values that have contributed to this legacy. In fact, the idea of handing on an enduring legacy is one of the most distinctive features of any and all humanistic traditions.

II. Culture

            Culture is a grammar composed of a discrete number of symbols, artifacts, beliefs, and communicative means all of which are continuously created by, revised, and renewed by individuals and their unique speech communities in a synthetic manner the purpose and use of which is to understand the past, cope with the present, and create their distinctive future. Since the notion and term “meme” was first proposed by Richard Dawkins at Oxford University in 1976 (The Selfish Gene), memes are replicative aspects of culture such as habits, skills, and all kinds of information that is copied from one person to another and from one group to another. Because copying these elementary particles of culture is imperfect—human beings are imperfect mimics and communicators by nature—variation and selection are essential products of mimetic culture. The Oxford English Dictionary defines memes as “an element of culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.” When memes group into systems they are known as memeplexes. These include cultural systems such as sports, communication systems, politics, and all of the humanities. In the twenty-first century, the Internet, for example, is a vast memeplex.


III. Fields of study

            The humanities often are described in a list of separate fields of knowledge, production, and study. Traditionally, these fields have included: art, architecture, dance, history, (foreign and native) languages, literature (poetry, drama, prose fiction, essay), military arts, music, philosophy, and religion. For the past century, new humanistic fields have been introduced, including cinema, photography, theater, and translation. Any and all of these fields can be organized into separate academic and scholarly domains of study. Each of these areas has a set of analytical tools unique to its own separate discipline. In a course dedicated to the humanities of a relatively homogeneous area (i.e., Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, North America, etc.), however, a comparative approach is used. This means that examples of humanistic productions will be viewed both by means of discipline-specific analytical tools and by comparative techniques.


IV. Humanistic choices

            Given how virtually unlimited the materials the humanities of Latin America are, and given the confines of a three-credit hour semester-long college course, major choices must be made. These choices are made by the instructor on the basis of (1) chronological coverage (pre-Columbian to the present); (2) enduring representative authority of the specific item or text chosen; (3) aesthetic value (i.e., beauty understand in a broad and necessarily subjective sense); (4) regional coverage (more north, central, and southern regions of Latin America); and (5) diversity of Latin language base and indigenous language community. In other words, this humanities course, like all courses in the humanities, seeks balance universal value(s) with distinctively and uniquely concrete humanistic products. All levels (old fashioned concepts such as so-called “high culture” or “low culture”), types, values, contents, and inclusion or exclusion from so-called canons (lists determined by actual or self-proclaimed experts) can be considered as appropriate choices for a course such as this one. However, a few criteria do tend to take precedence; notably, (6) originality, (7) skilled craftsmanship, (8) importance of subject or theme, (9) organizational coherence, and (10) how memorable and lasting the humanities object is for the student and a wide audience.


V. Course goal

            This humanities course aims to invite student explorers and inquirers to (1) discover a humanistic world that may be totally foreign and new to him/her; (2) enrich knowledge about a world that may already be very or just somewhat familiar; (3) expand self-knowledge through a process of exploring the Other while opening oneself to integrating some of the values of this Other humanistic tradition from the past and the living present into their own lives; (4) learn and use humanistic analytical tools as system of learning that is supplementary to a system the student may already be familiar with (i.e., social sciences, engineering, mathematics, health professions, etc.); and (5) be open to the joy of new knowledge in the communal setting of a college class.


VI. Method and approach unique to this course

            A major way of thinking, analyzing, and approaching the materials included in this course is based on metaphor. A metaphor, simply stated, is the joining together two separate and distinct images into a new unit of thought. Some of the materials in this course are simply factual: dates, names, places, etc. Other materials involved ideas. What unites these things into a whole is metaphors. For example, see the very first image that will be presented at the beginning of the course and this exists in this courses, on-line materials: a boy (image #1) and a snake (image #2). Put them together and you have a metaphor, a boy-snake, if you will, or something like that.


VII. Summary definition. The humanities are:

            -- those products of human creativity* that mediate between (A) a society's power structure and (B) that society's mass of people irrespective of social or economic class and the human values embedded in those people; and

            -- these products tend to be passed on from generation to generation through a series of social and historical processes.


            * Humanistic products can occur in these fields or in a combination of these fields: art, architecture, dance, film, history, literature (essay, poetry, prose narrative), military arts, music, philosophy, photography, religion, rhetoric (oratory), sculpture, textiles, and theater.



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