“Humanities” Is Always Plural


The humanities, like humans, only flourish when two or more gather.

Recently I attended a world civilization class taught by Christie Cowles Charles, one of our outstanding English teachers. She began the class by sharing her story of growing up in Southside Chicago, a blonde Mormon girl in a predominantly black elementary school. Choosing the best actors for the main parts in a play, Charles says, “we voted my blonde, Mormon friend to play Rosa Parks and my African-American friend to play the white bus driver—to our teacher’s consternation.” Making paper black- and-white masks to play their “parts” (“it didn’t matter what our actual race was,” she says), the students “grew colorblind together.” 

There is an irony to the fact that as we get to know others and experience the many diversities we carry around within us, the superficial differences and outward appearances that so often signal diversity come to matter less and less. Scott Page, an economist at the University of Michigan, has made a convincing case for the value of what he calls “cognitive diversity” (as opposed to “identity diversity”). Cognitive diversity is the unique combination of experiences and skills we each bring to the groups within which we interact. According to Page, groups with broader cognitive diversity are better at solving complex problems than are groups of brilliant, but very similar, people. 

Unlike deer or fish, the term humanities is always plural—its singular form, humanity, being both subject and source of this odd collective noun. Mirroring the collective genius of humanity, the humanities reflect the multitude of complex, sometimes contradictory factors that make each of us unique. At the same time, those factors can resonate with similar or complementary traits in others, heralding a collective difference that promises solutions to life’s thorny problems. The humanities, like humans, only flourish when two or more gather. 

Restored truth teaches us that God’s greatest work, and the source of His glory, is humanity. In scripture we read of Moses on an “exceedingly high mountain” (Moses 1:1), alternately beholding the glory of God’s creations and being terrorized by a ranting fraud who demands worshipful attention. After experiencing these highly contrasting emotions in quick succession, Moses invokes God and is once more favored with vision and understanding. God shows him the earth, among many worlds and their inhabitants. Moses asks why, and how, God created worlds without number, to which God replies, twice, they are “numbered unto me, for they are mine” (Moses 1:35, 37). God then offers a key to comprehending the infinite number and variety of humanity: “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). As mortal Moses puzzles over how God can comprehend the numberless multitudes, God’s matter-of-fact reply suggests that when we work for the benefit of others, they become, to us, distinct, “numbered,” and cherished individuals. 

Once, decades ago, I made my own trip to exceedingly high mountains on a solo journey around India. I’d always yearned to visit Kashmir, a fabled land of beauty, to do some trekking in the Himalayas, but my student budget required that I take a winding 12-hour bus ride to get there. The trip began ominously at the terminal with a burly police officer dragging a passenger off the bus and beating him with a baton. After that, things were quiet for the first hour or so, but during one of our pit stops, a young Kashmiri man, roughly my age, struck up a conversation, and we spent the rest of the ride deep in discussion. He had polished his English as an itinerant merchant, most recently in Oman, selling Kashmiri carpets to rich Arabs. He made this trip several times a year, had a wife and two children in Srinagar, and was an observant Muslim. Our swaying, gravel-road conversation passed through stages, from the lowlands of superficial personal details, to foothill observations about life, to loftier confessions of faith and conviction. 

As the miles and hours passed on our journey, we both recognized at a particular moment that we shared the same hopes for life in a better world, the same awe in the presence of God’s creations (natural and human), and the same dismay at the inhumanity we saw around us, exemplified by the beating we had witnessed at the start of our trip. After passing through a mountain tunnel, we entered the Vale of Kashmir, shared a last roadside meal, and finally arrived at the Srinagar bus terminal. It was nearly midnight, and as we parted in the dark I knew that our conversation had converted us from total strangers to spiritually bonded travelers of the same road. Among the numberless multitudes of India, we had come to number each other as friends and brothers. 

We need courage to venture out into the unknown, to confront the countless masses and, within them, find new brothers and sisters. The divisiveness that prevails today tempts us to limit our interactions to a smattering of like-minded folks around us. But as we reach out and “number” others, our collective diversity offers hope for solutions to the complex problems we face. When we multiply, rather than divide, we humanize an impersonal world and anticipate a future when, like God, our glory will lie in knowing, and numbering, all humanity.

—Dean Scott Miller