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Humanities and Humanistic Education

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Robert E. Proctor in his book on the problem of the humanities begins with the following:


One of the difficulties facing those of us in colleges and universities today is that we are often unable to agree upon what we should teach and why. This is especially true for those disciplines included under the rubric “humanities.” No one today knows what the humanities are…. The phrase “the humanities” warms almost everyone’s heart. But why can’t we define them? Because the original humanities are dead. (Proctor: 1988, xiii)


Proctor’s problem is ours too. The original humanities refer to the Western humanistic tradition starting from Socrates and Aristotle, through Cicero, Quintilian and the Renaissance thinkers, down to Matthew Arnold in the late 19th century. This tradition is dead because the ideas and ideals embodied in the humanities are no longer relevant in the contemporary world. They are disintegrated and forgotten. Hence what we cannot define is not the meaning of the humanities in the traditional sense but their contemporary usage. What apparently remains is only the name of an administrative division of the university, and a cluster of loosely connected disciplines under this division of the humanities or the arts. Philosophy appears in the degree of Ph.D., but it is just a name without any meaningful content unless the degree is granted by a philosophy department.


I would like to discuss this issue in the context of Hong Kong and to see whether the humanities are dead. I would suggest that our situation here is more complicated than that of Proctor’s since we are not just facing the Western but also the Chinese tradition of the humanities. I would outline the difficulty in defining the humanities in both traditions and the implications for humanistic education.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates believed that the best manner to examine one’s life is through reasoning which employs the dialectical method of inquiry. His method of seeking the truth – the Socratic Method – is used in education today to foster critical thinking where students are instigated by the continual probing questions of the teacher, in a concerted effort to explore the underlying beliefs that shape the students views and opinions.


What are the humanities? The Oxford English Dictionary reads: “Learning or literature concerned with human culture; a term including the various branches of polite scholarship; as grammar, rhetoric, poetry and esp. study of Latin and Greek classics.” This is clearly not very useful because it is both too broad and too narrow. Sociology and anthropology are concerned with human culture yet it is rather difficult to include them under the humanities. If the humanities refer only to the study of Latin and Greek classics, then obviously most subjects commonly regarded as humanities subjects will fall outside this category.


The definition given by the National Endowment for the Humanities in the US offers a better option:


The humanities are above all a way of thinking, a dimension of learning. The subjects of the humanities range from the study of great texts to the analysis of contemporary problems; the methods of the humanities are both those of particular disciplines and of broader interdisciplinary inquiry. The humanities include, but are not limited to history, philosophy, languages, linguistics, literature, archaeology, jurisprudence, history and criticism of the ails, ethics, comparative religion, and those aspects of the social sciences employing historical or philosophical approaches. This last category includes political theory, international relations and other subjects primarily concerned with questions of quality and value rather than methodologies. (quoted in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 14th ed., Vol. 20, p. 731)


This array of disciplines does not take us very far in the search for an understanding of the meaning of the humanities. However, it gives an indication of the meaning of the humanities through the implication of their opposite: the sciences. The humanities are concerned with the quality and value of human life and culture employing historical and philosophical approaches, while the realm of the objective and the quantifiable belongs to scientific investigation. The humanities and the sciences are two distinctly separated areas of disciplines: one is subjective and speculative, and the other is objective and realistic. C. E Snow pointed out long ago the danger of this separation of two opposing cultures.1


But the original meaning of the humanities, if we go back to the classical root, should not have any anti-scientific connotation. The studia humanitatis in the Renaissance includes not only literature, the arts and philosophy but also scientific studies of nature. The opposition between the humanities and the sciences is only a contemporary phenomenon. (cf. Proctor: 1988, pp 20-24)


Indeed, the meaning of the Western humanities is rooted deeply in the classical tradition. It grows out of the idea of man and the ideal of education. The term “humanities” comes from the Latin “humanitas”. The Roman Aulus Gellius in the 2nd century gave a definitive formulation of the term:


Those who have spoken Latin and have used the language correctly do not give the word humanitas the meaning which it is commonly thought to have, namely, what the Greeks called philanthropia, signifying a kind of friendly spirit and good feeling towards all men without distinction; but they gave to humanitas about the force of the Greek paedeia; that is, what we call eruditionem institionemque in bonas artes, or “education and training in the good arts.” Those who earnestly desire and seek after these are most highly humanized (maximi humanissimi). For the pursuit of that kind of knowledge, and the training given by it, have been granted to man alone of all the animals, and for that reason, it is termed humanitas, or “humanity”. (Crane: 1967, p. 23)

The idea that knowledge itself is intrinsically good and valuable and the model of a philosopher serve as two important parameters for assessing the meaning of the humanities up till today.

In this passage, the meaning of the humanities is determined by two inter-connected ideas, which eventually are proven to be of lasting importance in the understanding of the humanities. One is the axiological idea of man: man is to be distinguished from all other creatures and in him alone lies the possibility of actualising the highest virtue of man, that is, the humanitas. On the other hand, there is a programmatic idea, a curriculum, the “bonas artes”, leading to this actualisation. Hence the humanities are both the ideal of man and the curriculum for humanistic education. Nevertheless, it is not very clear as to what exactly the ideal of man is and what in this curriculum it should consist of. The aim of education is to bring out the virtues of man, to become fully humanised. Two models of the fully humanised man are present in the classical age: Aristotle’s idea of philosopher and Cicero’s orator.


However, philosopher and orator are not necessarily two contrary ideas. Both come from the idea of paedeia, the Greek ideal of education: to be a free man as well as a good citizen. The difference lies only in the priority of the purpose of life: whether the pursuit of knowledge itself pertains to the goal of a free man, or that the fulfilment of civic responsibilities is the ultimate criterion to qualify for a good life.


To be free means to be free from ignorance, prejudice, narrowness and arrogance, and at the same time to be free to seek an intellectual and contemplative life through philosophy as the highest possible happiness attained by man (cf. Nussbaum: 1985, and Kimball: 1986). For Aristotle, the desire for knowledge is the basic and deepest natural urge for the human being. This correlates to his famous definition of man as zoon logon echon: a living being possessing the potentiality of reasoning and articulation. The highest goal that man may achieve is the actualisation of his potentiality of reason which is realised in the form of metaphysical knowledge. As formulated in his Nicomachean Ethics, this is happiness. The idea that knowledge itself is intrinsically good and valuable and the model of a philosopher serve as two important parameters for assessing the meaning of the humanities up till today.


For Cicero and Quintilian, on the other hand, knowledge has no intrinsic value except as a contribution to the formation of an orator. The status of the orator in the days of Cicero was exceptionally high. He was not just a good and eloquent speaker but the leader of society. The proper use of language in the public sphere was the most important political instrument for the orator. “Thus, I think that no one ought to be numbered among the orators who is not polished in all those arts that are proper for a free citizen,” says Cicero in De Oratore. Here is the emphasis on the practical results of the humanities, the artes liberales, which are the basic requirements for an orator. The orator as a good citizen and political leader possesses not only theoretical knowledge but also moral virtues. Quintilian adds, “We are, then, educating that perfect orator, who must be a good man; and therefore, we require of him not only an exceptional talent for speaking but also virtues of the soul.” (quoted in Kimball: 1986, p. 12) This moral character of the humanities remains a fundamental principle for all intellectuals who claim to have a humanistic education. The purpose of education is to serve society.


The conception of studia humanitatis in the Renaissance follows this tradition. Leonardo Bruno, a humanistic scholar in the 15th century, conceives the meaning of the humanities as an echo of the classical heritage. In a letter to a friend asking him to devote more time to the study of the humanities, he says:


Let your study be twofold, first in the skill of letters (litterarum peritia), not the vulgar and common kind, but one which is more diligent and penetrating, and in this I very much want you to excel; and second in the knowledge of those things which pertain to life and moral character (mores). These two are therefore called the humanities (studia humanitatis), because they perfect and adorn a human being (homo). (quoted in Proctor: 1988, p. 3)2


This brief survey of the classical conception of the Western humanities is enough for our purpose here for understanding the meaning of the humanities: the ideal of being human and the curriculum leading to the actualisation of this ideal.


If we look at the Chinese tradition for the meaning of the humanities, we shall find a striking similarity between it and the Western idea. Both stress the moral connotations of the purpose of human learning. A comparable concept of the humanities, ren wen (人文), appears first in the I-ching: To observe movements in heaven (tian wen) so as to understand the change in time; to observe human activities (ren wen) so as to acculturate the world. (观乎天文,以察时变,观乎人文,以化成天下). The human activities mentioned here are not simply any human activities but a special set of moral activities. The late Prof Tang Chun-I (唐君毅) explains: “The term ren wen in Chinese stresses the idea of man (ren) rather than external activities (wen). It demands the self-awareness of man as man and the conscious recognition of the immanent moral virtues, only through which can man achieve his authentic self.”3 This agrees with the traditional dominant Confucian doctrine of education, of which the aim is to actualise one’s moral virtues and to extend this moral activity to the world (修己治人).



According to Proctor, the original humanities are dead, and the contemporary humanities have no direction and are in a chaotic situation.


The obvious reason for the death of the humanities tradition is the scientific-technological revolution which started in the 17th century and changed the world radically in all aspects of life, notwithstanding the idea and the aim of education. The triumph of scientific progress set the criterion of truth based on a scientific paradigm. Reliable knowledge can only be attained through empirical scientific methodologies. Knowledge is no longer considered primarily a virtue, as the Socratic tradition maintains. Knowledge, beginning with the radical epistemological turn by Francis Bacon, is power. Knowledge is directed outside our subjectivity towards the world. The moral aspect of knowledge becomes a minor issue whereas the explanatory power of scientific knowledge of the world is the chief concern. Furthermore, the application of scientific knowledge to technology is proven to be extremely successful. Hence the value of any knowledge is measured by its practicality and usefulness.

Hence the value of any knowledge is measured by its practicality and usefulness. The humanities can by no means claim any sense of usefulness. Their status as knowledge is problematic.

The humanities can by no means claim any sense of usefulness. Their status as knowledge is problematic. The object of the study of any humanities subject is not the objective world of facts but written texts. The study of philosophy is the analysis of ideas that come out of some philosophers’ minds. It is at best only ideas upon ideas. What is the point of knowing the concept of transcendence in Husserl’s phenomenology or the idea of tragedy by Aristotle? To rephrase Marx: so far, the humanities have interpreted the world, argued about human nature, explained the past and described human suffering and happiness, but the point is how to change all of them. I do not think the humanities have the answer for that. What the world needs most, so we are told, is certainly not orators or philosophers or men of virtue, but scientists and technologists with concrete contribution to knowledge and the ability to change the world according to human needs.

The beautiful brain

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, widely considered the founding father of modern neuroscience, used drawing as a vital way of thinking out loud, of giving form to ideas, of making arguments and fleshing out theories around the skeleton of observations. While revolutionising neuroscience, he created hundreds of exquisite drawings to illustrate his scientific papers. His achievements in art and science make him a Renaissance man at heart. Source: The Instituto Cajal

At the same time, the demand for specialised knowledge and the restructuring of the modern university further disintegrates the humanities into separate departments of learning. The organic unity of the artes liberales has lost its bond. The classical unity of the Chinese humanities – literature-history-philosophy – has broken down into three different departments, which are most of the time completely ignorant of each other. Our situation in Hong Kong is even worse. Literature is not only separated from history and philosophy but also from culture. A graduate in English literature knowing a lot about Shakespeare but without a clue as to who Li-bai is might feel no embarrassment at all. This might not be his fault, because his teacher probably does not even recognise the need to know Chinese literature. Perhaps it might not be the case if he is a comparativist.


The grouping of disciplines under a particular faculty follows no definite principle. History, a traditional humanities subject, can be put under social sciences. The other disciplines are put together because of administrative inertia. Every discipline can be as independent as it would like to claim.

Interdisciplinary study or research is a superficial and not very serious business.



So is the academic situation after the death of the traditional humanities. The problem is there is no apparent problem at all. Apparently, we are all at ease with the present situation as long as we have found our own haven in the academic world. The questions of what the humanities are and what the aim of humanistic education is are barely discussed among colleagues. They were not even mentioned during the validation exercise for the degree of BA in Humanities at the Hong Kong Baptist College – a curious name for a degree, and one which I think is tautological in meaning.

Humanities scholars in the pandemic

The German government recruited humanities scholars including philosophers, historians, theologians and jurists for guidance on loosening COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, as it navigates the delicate ethical balancing act of reopening the society while safeguarding the public’s health. Photo: Shutterstock

Professor David Pollard is equally pessimistic about the humanities. In an article on the humanities facing the challenge of the 21st century, he says frankly, “If we are talking about the humanities in the context of universities, then no, the humanities could not be well prepared to meet the challenge of the next decade or the next century, because the universities themselves are in a bad way.” (Pollard: 1991, p. 16) He puts the blame on mercantilism in the universities. “Mercantilism means running the universities like a commercial business and selling knowledge like a product.” Under this system, teaching, scholarship and research are all corrupted. The humanities are but some unprofitable commodities in the marketplace of academia. So why bother to ask the meaning of the humanities, if what society is interested in is apparently whether graduates with a BA in Humanities are marketable?


I admit the picture I have painted might be over-exaggerated. Yet I cannot hide my dismay and frustration over the chasm between the ideal of the humanities and the reality. Time and again I have asked my students, who are academically above average among their peers, whether they know when Hong Kong was ceded to Britain, or why the question of 1997 is so important, or what the meaning of the Bill of Rights is. Eight out of ten times I got unsatisfactory answers. When I attempt to discuss more abstract or philosophical issues on the meaning and aim of their education, or the relationship between various disciplines and their relevance to the real world, they remain silent most of the time. If we ask our humanities students why they are pursuing a BA degree in the arts faculty, very few of them would say they have genuine interests in the humanities, even though they may not even know what the humanities are. The majority of them would tell you, if they are honest, that they were pursuing this degree because their examination grades only allowed them to cash in on this relatively cheap academic product.

The reason for this kind of phenomenon lies not only in the mercantilism of our university education... but at a deeper level, in the crisis of the humanities. The tragedy is that we do not recognise this crisis.

Certainly, I am not just frustrated by the students. My greatest dismay comes from us, the teachers of the humanities. We seem to be comfortable in our academic ivory tower doing our own teaching and research. This is justified by the belief that what we are doing has intrinsic and universal value and there is no reason why we should be accountable to the world – the vulgar commercial world, in which the humanities are naturally not appreciated. Wittgenstein is the most important contemporary philosopher, therefore, his philosophy should be taught. The plays of Shakespeare are so significant that they cannot be left out in any literature course. In short, we think what we are teaching is universal both in content and meaning. Hence Wittgenstein and Milton are taught in the university. At the same time, we do not apologise for being specialists in a single discipline of the humanities. The model of the Renaissance man was outmoded long ago. We should be experts in order to demonstrate our scholarship. Our academic responsibility is to disseminate to the students the knowledge that we have learned most, or the knowledge we claim to have. Whether this kind of “knowledge” has anything to do with the real world or any relation to other branches of knowledge is not our concern as long as it is prescribed in the structure of a course. So, in a way we are sophists selling a commodity called the humanities in the knowledge factory. Yet it is presumptuous to call ourselves sophists, who in ancient Greece not only imparted knowledge to students while taking fees but also promised to teach wisdom and virtue. I do not think we can make such a claim as to be teaching wisdom or virtue. The moral responsibility of knowledge is not prescribed in our contract.


The reason for this kind of phenomenon lies not only in the mercantilism of our university education, which Pollard describes earlier, but at a deeper level, in the crisis of the humanities. The tragedy is that we do not recognise this crisis. And just because we fail to take notice of this tragedy, we become the victims of mercantilism. Even worse: we measure ourselves against the yardstick set by the natural sciences while we are forced to admit that the humanities are far more inferior than other disciplines in the market of knowledge commodities.


Whether we like it or not, the humanities that are so structured in our university are void of ideals, internal unity and existential relevance.


What can we do? Certainly, someone may argue that what I have just described is not the case. Even if it were the case, we may console ourselves by referring to what the great master Confucius says in the Analects: “I understand very well that the great Tao is not prevailing in the world, I only try to do with all my effort to accomplish the impossible,” (道之不行也,己知已矣,知其不可为而为之). Or we may be less altruistic and remember what Chuangtze (莊子) has said, “While the fish forget themselves in the waters, we forget ourselves in the Tao,” (鱼相濡于江湖,人相忘于道术).

“Learning and being a person can go hand in hand and be integrated into one.” 为学与做人,贵能齐头并进,融通为一

Considered one of the greatest historians and philosophers of 20th-century China, Qian Mu (钱穆) was also a dedicated educator who has influcenced many. He regarded humanities as the foremost educational objective and placed importance on liberal arts rather than specialisation in education. He founded the New Asia College in Hong Kong in 1949 which later became part of The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

However, I do not think that we must resign too easily. If teaching the humanities is our vocation, it is certainly imperative for us to understand and justify our raison d’étre.



I still believe in the simple idea of humanitas, which is the aim of humanistic education – to change a person into a free individual and a good citizen, although these two ideas are not easy to understand. At the same time, I do agree with the curriculum of the humanities: the division of language, history, literature, fine art and philosophy. The problem is how to connect the aim to the curriculum.


Language, history, literature, fine art and philosophy are indeed not separate disciplines that are arbitrarily organised under the rubric of the humanities. Their unity is ontologically rooted in the person. All five disciplines are studies of human faculties and experiences. Language is most fundamental in our existence, since articulation, expression and discourse are basic existential modes through which we discover ourselves and the world. History is not simply the story of the past but a manifestation of our existential historicity. Memory, remembrance and recollection are human psychological activities that are functioning consciously or unconsciously in our daily experience. We are historical in the sense that without the faculty of remembrance we do not know what and where we are. Literature and fine art are the result of our handling the possible with the help of affection, emotion, sympathy, fantasy, creativity and imagination. Literature shows us that we are never alone as an isolated monad kept in a closed capsule because we have affection and sympathy. Fine art demonstrates to us that our existence is not bound by the factual material world. Through creativity, we can transform a dead stone into a lively sculpture or fill the blank canvas with an oil painting. We do not have to be artists in order to know this creative power: simply fold a blank paper into a boat or a crane. Since childhood, we never stop asking why and reflect on the meaning and value of things around us. This critical questioning leads to philosophy.

One possible danger of the study of the humanities at this level is to recede into the discussion of abstract universals while ignoring the existential and concrete dimension. Human beings do not exist in an abstract universal world of ideas but in a concrete cultural world.

Of course, I do not mean that by having these faculties and experiences we have automatically the knowledge of the humanities. They are different. The humanities are systematic studies of these human experiences using definite methodologies. What I want to say is that the humanities are only possible because they are rooted in our existence. In short, the humanities are existential in essence. Only through the study of the humanities, the manifestations of our existence, can we understand ourselves as human beings. Here we might modify the classical Aristotelian definition of man into this: a human being is an affective living being possessing the power of reasoning and articulation. In studying the humanities, we study ourselves as human beings. By realising that we have the power of reason and affection we can become free. And by studying the humanities, the product of freedom of other human beings, we can liberate ourselves from ignorance and prejudice.


One possible danger of the study of the humanities at this level is to recede into the discussion of abstract universals while ignoring the existential and concrete dimension. Human beings do not exist in an abstract universal world of ideas but in a concrete cultural world.


To be a good citizen is the second aim of the humanities. This requires a new dimension of understanding the relationship between the individual and the world. Hence a free individual order to become a good citizen. Good citizenship implies a moral responsibility of the person to his society and other fellow citizens. In this respect, the humanities should be supplemented by a basic understanding of the concrete cultural and historical world as well as the nature of the contemporary world. This includes elementary knowledge of science and technology, political thoughts, the history and culture of Hong Kong. Of course, knowledge and understanding do not imply moral responsibility, they serve only as conditions for the formation of good citizenship.

The photo was taken in St Albans by Prof Cheung after he left Hong Kong for the UK in 2020. He wrote in the foreword in his iPhone photography album, “even though in difficult times, we should have something beautiful in our mind.” Photo: Prof Cheung Chan-Fai


The above is obviously a very sketchy outline. In fact, what I wish to see is the bringing back of the classical idea of the humanities and the curriculum of humanistic education to our present university education. I believe our undergraduate programme in the humanities has gone astray. The purpose of an undergraduate degree in the humanities is not to train specialists in any particular field of the humanities but to nurture human beings who understand the meaning and the ideal of the humanities. Only then can they meaningfully specialise later in their postgraduate study.


This paper was originally presented at the Interdisciplinary Seminar organised by the Arts Faculty, Hong Kong Baptist College, on 27th April 1992.


  1. Crane, R. S. The Idea of the Humanities. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967.
  2. Kimball, Bruce A. Orators and Philosophers. New York: Teachers College Press, 1986.
  3. Nussbaum, Martha C. Historical Conception of the Humanities and Their Relationship to Society, in Daniel Callahan, ed. Applying the Humanities. New York: Plenum Press, 1985.
  4. Perry, Ralph Barton. A Definition of the Humanities, in T. M. Greene, ed. The Meaning of the Humanities. New York: Kennikat Press, 1938 (1969).
  5. Pollard, David E. Meeting the Challenge of the 21st Century, in The Humanities Bulletin. Vol. 1 (1991).
  6. Proctor, Robert E. Education’s Great Amnesia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.


Prof Cheung Chan-fai obtained his BA and MPhil degrees from The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and Dr. phil. from Freiburg University, Germany. His research interests include phenomenology, the philosophy of love, death and happiness, theories of General Education and more.

Before Prof Cheung retired from CUHK in 2012, he was Professor and former Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, and Director of the following institutions: University General Education, the Edwin Cheng Foundation Asian Centre for Phenomenology, the Research Centre for General Education, and the Leadership Development Programme.

Prof Cheung is also a prolific author. His most recent publications are: Hong Kong in Crisis (in Chinese, 2021), Educated to be Human: Essays on the Humanities, Philosophy and General Education (in Chinese, 2021), Proximity and Distance (2019), and Phenomenology of Photography (in Chinese, 2019).


Healthcare and Education for Asian Development

  1. Cf. C. P. Snow. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959).


    In the actual curriculum of Bruno’s programme, the septem artes liberales, which are the standard subjects taught in the Middle Ages, still serve as the foundational subjects, though with modification. These include three subjects concerning language – grammar, rhetoric and logic (or dialectic) – plus four mathematical or ‘scientific’ subjects – arithmetic, geometry and astronomy (cf. Kimball: 1986, p. 14). There is no clear dichotomy between the ‘humanities’ and the ‘sciences’.

  3. T'ang Chun-I, The Development of the Spirit of Chinese Humanity 中国人文精神之发展修己治人 (Taiwan: The Student Press, 1974). p. 21


Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications


Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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