The Humanities and Me:
Stephen Collins

Some appreciation of the humanities is fundamental to living a full life. A knowledge of literature and a grasp of history is the only way an individual can come to truly understand the world.

An appreciation of the past is vital to make sense of the world around us. That is why the study of history is important and why it is so disheartening to see the way the subject is being downgraded in the school curriculum. History is not just an accumulation of facts about the past but a way that individuals alive today can connect with those who went before them and appreciate how we all came to be the kind of people we are today.

While the history of civilizations, kings and revolutions may be of limited interest to many people, the lives of our own ancestors speak directly to us. That is why it is so encouraging to see the blossoming of interest in family history in recent years. There is no better way to comprehend the past than to study the lives of our own forebears. People with a knowledge of their own family history, and that of the wider community, can come to understand the world we live in in a way that often eludes those who have no context for the present. 

At a recent symposium on the life of Conor Cruise O’Brien one of the contributors noted that one of the things that made O’Brien’s conversation so stimulating was that he was steeped in his own family’s history going back to the time of John Redmond and Charles Stewart Parnell. It meant that his discussions about politics were coloured by more than a century of Irish history in which the influence of the Parnell split on life, literature and politics was as relevant as the latest political sensation.

A knowledge of the past is also crucial to understanding the society we live in today.  To know how people lived and thought fifty, a hundred or two hundred years ago and more is the only way in which we can appreciate the enormous privilege given to those of us who live in western democracies in the early 21st century.

In short knowing the past enables us to live fuller and more meaningful lives while an appreciation of literature allows us to see life from the vantage point of other people.

Without the humanities the world would be a far poorer and more brutal place than it is. 

Published: 08 Nov 2017

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Stephen Collins is a political columnist with the Irish Times and the author of a number of books including: The Cosgrave Legacy (Dublin, 1996), The Power Game: Fianna Fáil since Lemass (Dublin, 2000) and Breaking the Mould: How the PDS changed Irish politics (Dublin, 2005).