A defense of the humanities


The arts are one measure of a nation’s progress and are an indicator of a flourishing cultural scene. Ironically, the study of liberal arts, especially the humanities, is still misrepresented and underrepresented in Saudi Arabia, with the majority echoing a belief that has been ingrained is us for far too long: that the humanities are not practical.

Indeed, the field has long been described to me as a path with no future, or else, as a path for the “less talented” people, aka losers. To this day, many people complain about how unfortunate it is to lose brilliant minds to the humanities; little do they know that the humanities actually nurture minds rather than bury them.

Despite being the epitome of a society’s (and an individual’s) development, it may still not be clear how fields such as philosophy, history, literature, film, art history, or communication, for example, can translate into economic output or individual success. And yet, many successful CEOs in the international arena have graduated with a degree in the humanities like YouTube’s CEO, Susan Wojcicki who graduated with a BA in history and literature, and Whole Foods’ Co-CEO, John Mackey, who studied philosophy and religion. What the humanities have equipped them with is the most essential tool an individual can ever cultivate: a sharp mind.

By studying the humanities, we are able to develop critical thinking and other soft skills like rhetoric and communications that are essential to the workplace, interpersonal relations, and intrapersonal development. After all, the humanities are not as focused on subject matter like the hard sciences, for besides their content, they focus on stimulating abilities, such as being able to examine material from different angles and being adaptive to different situations and topics. Simply put, they enable us to have a thinking toolset that is applicable to a broad range of fields or career paths. On the individual level, people who study the humanities become able to argue their point of view coherently as well as to contemplate another’s point of view, with an added bonus of being able to pinpoint fallacies in both arguments and counter-arguments, leading to self-reflection, and inevitably, self-development. Of course, fostering tolerance becomes parts of that equation as well.

With the collateral advantage of introspection, the humanities become an investment in an individual’s development, which in turn is also an investment in society. After all, human capital, when properly utilized in the right fields, will inevitably translate into economic output as well as an elevation of society, economically as well as intellectually. By introducing other new fields, the humanities can create new career paths and act as a platform for raising the collective consciousness, like they are meant to do. Nurturing our literature, theater performances, educational curricula, film, and media goes way beyond entertainment. It is about having a platform through which we can discuss social issues and through which we can also develop an appreciation for the aesthetic and a taste for the arts. The humanities also act as a gateway to other cultures, which increases our capacity for empathy and our tolerance of the other and prompts our understanding of different points of view that expand our horizons. Indeed, instigating an open debate and an introspective and interpersonal dialogue about all aspects or subjects that make us human helps us to become better human beings.

Unfortunately, the lack of outlets, support and jobs in these fields in the Kingdom has forced the humanities to be channeled underground, or to be locked within individuals. The public’s mentality and discouragement has provided further incentive for those interested in the humanities to avoid this field or to pursue it and yet remain in their ivory tower rather than engage in and benefit society. It has led them to live unfulfilled lives with buried talents, which in the process, has also become a great loss to our society.

Fortunately, recent projects such as MiSK foundation have become pioneers in bringing back the focus (and praise) to the humanities and human beings themselves. Hopefully, by gradually building the infrastructure and public mentality that supports the humanities, the newer generation will feel more encouraged to pursue these fields. The humanities, after all, have been the crux of the European Renaissance, and they may well be the crux of ours and the path by which our future, Vision 2030, can become a reality. And to every person who sees the humanities as a dead end, I say: On the contrary, it is the future.

Khadija Hisham Alem,


(The author can be reached at: Khadija.alem@gmail.com)