Our guide to humanities
Alistair Stafford

Our guide to humanities

First published date February 26 2014 Amended date March 06 2014

At some point in our lives, we’ve all studied some kind of humanities course. Whether it was the history or geography GCSE you’d rather forget from high school years or the business studies degree that helped you get your first job, humanities courses have played a significant part in our education.

There is such a diverse selection of potential subjects for you to study and a humanities course can cover almost any element of human life. With humanities courses available in a wide range of levels, from fun courses to degree programmes,  you’ll have no trouble finding a humanities course to suit your interests.


What actually counts as a humanities course?

According to the Oxford dictionary, humanities courses are defined as ‘learning concerned with human culture, especially literature, history, art, music, and philosophy.’ An alternative view comes via Stanford University, who describe humanities courses as something which ‘people, from every period of history and from every corner of the globe, process and document the human experience.’With those definitions in mind, you could probably argue that almost any subject is linked to human culture in one way or another, so the list of humanities courses is massive!


How do humanities courses differ from social science ones?

To make matters confusing, some institution and governing bodies have differing opinions in what they consider to be a humanities course, so a subject that is defined as a humanities course in one place could be classified as a social science (or even an arts course in some cases) elsewhere. In all of those classifications, the subjects are connected in some way to human behaviour, although social sciences tend to have some kind of scientific focus in the way they’re studied whereas humanities courses are often considered more theory and research based. It certainly makes things very confusing!


But that’s crazy...

We can understand why people aren’t certain what their subject is classified as. The problem is exacerbated by colleges and universities, who merge their humanities courses with a wide mixture of other subjects to make up their different departments, linking humanities subjects with categories as diverse as art, languages and cultural industries.


What type of course is for me?

Well, that depends on the type of person you are and the level you wish to study. If you’re more a creative-type then an arts course or music programme may be best suited to you, but for those who enjoy lots of academic study and research, then a history or psychology course will be best for your strengths. There’s such a wide range of humanities courses available you’ll have plenty of options choosing which route to pick. 


The course guide

With so many subjects classified as humanities courses, it can be difficult to decide which programme to take. Here are just a few of the potential humanities courses (or social sciences depending on who you believe) you can studied:

. Business studies – You may be surprised to know that business studies is the most popular subject studied at university, with figures showing that over 120,000 students are enrolled on the degree. Business studies courses don’t necessarily guarantee you’ll end up in a glamorous high paid vacancy in the city, but what they are able to do is teach the basic knowledge to understand the finance system and how businesses operate.

. General studies – Just as its name suggests, the courses cover a wide (or general) range of topics and elements of humanities. While a large percentage of high school and sixth form students study the subject at GCSE and A Level, many academics consider general studies as a ‘soft option’, with university disregarding general studies when enrolling new students.

. Languages – With over 250 languages believed to be spoken in London alone, it’s within human interest to keep abreast of the different tongues, regardless of the difficulty  of learning it. Not only has that, but a lot of what’s studied on other humanities courses comes from linguistics and foreign literature – so it’s well worth knowing.

. Religious Studies – Whether you consider yourself religious or not, it can’t be argued that people’s beliefs don’t play a huge part in how humanity interprets the world around us. Even if you’re not connected to a particular religious group, a considerable amount of our values and ideas originate from old religious texts.

. GeographyWhile it can be argued that physical geography is better defined as a science rather than a humanities course, human geography focuses on how people live in different communities and cultures. Most of what is studied on a geography course looks at the impact whatever is being discussed has on people, whether that climate change or globalisation, so certainly fills the requirements of being a humanities programme.

. History – As one of the traditional subjects that’s defined as a humanities course, history allows you to study about either a period of time, region of the world or subject that’s of interest to you. So whether you’re keen to know how your beloved country has changed over time, learn about a specific historical event or study a particular passion like the history of transport, the options are vast.

There are plenty of other subjects that also get referred to as humanities courses. Psychology and sociology are two courses both increasing in popularity, with the latter looking at human behaviour whereas psychology analyses the human mind.


What good will a humanities course have on my career?

As a humanities course covers such a diverse range of subjects, the experiences you’ll have gained from it could be transferred into almost any working environment. Not only will the course have significantly improved your general knowledge, it will also have developed how your research and analytical skills – useful in a wide range of careers. Many people who graduate with a humanities degree progress into teaching, with others using their broad range of skills to pursue careers in fields like finance or media. The beauty of a humanities course is that, unlike many subjects, it doesn’t limit you to a specific career path, so the options are vast. 

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