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Definition of the Humanities

In the congressional legislation that established the National Endowment for the Humanities, the term humanities includes, but is not limited to, the study of the following disciplines: history; philosophy; languages; linguistics; literature; archaeology; jurisprudence; the history, theory, and criticism of the arts; ethics; comparative religion; those aspects of the social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflection on our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.

NEH's Observations

The humanities deal with what is fundamentally and essentially human, the attributes which distinguish human beings from all other natural beings: self-consciousness, language, reason, creativity, human values and aspirations, and the products of all of these. The humanities concern themselves with the experience of being human—explore it, analyze it, interpret and refine it while at the same time adding to it. At the core of the humanities are questions of value and justification, meaning and interpretation.

The study of the humanities promotes the development of many important skills and capacities which are applicable to any subject matter and which are useful throughout our public and private lives. Although the humanities are not the only subject areas which promote them, these skills and capacities are a central concern and a primary focus in all humanities disciplines. They include the following:

  • Critical thinking (reasoning, organizing ideas, making distinctions, recognizing important similarities, grasping what is essential)
  • Decision making (maturity and refinement of judgment, ability to give good reasons)
  • Communication (clear, cogent expression of ideas and beliefs, ability to say and write what one means)
  • Self-understanding (ability to locate oneself culturally, ethnically, religiously, politically)
  • Valuation (ability to deal rationally with questions of value, to set priorities and balance competing ideals)
  • Integrative understanding (ability to synthesize learning, make relevant connections among a diversity of subjects)
  • Cross-cultural awareness (capacity for mutual understanding, tolerance, and the rational resolution of conflicts)
  • Aesthetic sensibility (capacity for the appreciation of fine art, music, literature, and the beauty of the natural world)
  • Civic responsibility (the ideals of truth, justice, and respect for persons are implicit in the study of the humanities)