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Ah, the humanities -- what are they?

ITHACA, N.Y. -- It's all well and good to discuss the importance of the humanities and their place in the scheme of things. But exactly what are the humanities? If you find yourself bereft of a ready answer, you're in pretty good company. Many humanist scholars themselves are unsure of the mix. 

The humanities are not a unified domain but represent a broad range of disciplines loosely classed under the rubric "liberal arts." 

They encompass the fine arts, the performing arts, literature and the study of human culture, but they can include the more quantifiable realms of basic math and science and the social sciences. 

Here's how it works at Cornell: At least 14 departments within the College of Arts and Sciences belong to those branches of study characterized as humanistic -- English, Philosophy and Classics, to name the old guard. In keeping with the historic flexibility of the term, the humanities at Cornell also embrace areas of study that include the social sciences. Examples of these areas include Government, History, Art History and Near Eastern Studies, as well as the Department of Art in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

In other words, the humanities are about human beings, their culture and their intellectual achievements. Except when they are not.

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