Classics professor revisits definition of “humanity”

Samika Parab

At the front of the podium, James H. Dee, associate classics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, urged his audience to consider their definitions on the origins of “humanities” and “humanists.” Equipped with a packet containing information about historical artifacts provided by Dee, attendees compared their views on the information presented about the true meaning of “humanistic” in the Tom Lea Rooms of the Harry Ransom Center.

Digging into history to trace the origins of the “humanities” and other related words, Dee offered a comprehensive portrayal of how these terms came to be defined in the world today. After receiving his Ph.D. in Classical Languages and Literature at UT, Dee spent much of his life spreading humanities education. He served as the classics department chair at UIC for eight years and later as associate director of the Institute for the Humanities.

“I always thought that the humanities referred to the arts, and while it does, I learned that the origins of the word are far more complex,” Biomedical engineering senior Shreya Bhatia said.

Dee built his claims by referencing ancient art and multiple historical documents.

“When early Renaissance scholars were rescuing old Latin manuscripts, they saw a lettering that was different from the current style broadly called Gothic,” Dee said when explaining the origin of “humanistic.” “They thought it was the handwriting of the Ancient Romans. It was actually Carolingian. Their imitations were then called ‘humanistic script.’”

Lee further corroborated his point by referencing two visuals provided to the audience. The first picture displayed Gothic lettering, while the second featured Early Renaissance, or Carolingian, handwriting, a form that would soon be viewed as humanistic.

Dee, a 1989 recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellowship, also went into detail about the tensions between the humanities and the sciences. He referenced not only the scientific minds that scoffed the humanities but also the humanities experts that looked down on the sciences as too rigid. 

“I appreciated the focus on both the clash between the humanities and the sciences and the internal differences of the humanities, such as the difference between ‘humanities’ and ‘humanity,’” history graduate student Emily Whalen said. “The lecture really made me see the humanities as a broad discipline.”

Dee, who is authoring a book on Humanitas Romana, or the idea of human nature and kindness, ended the presentation by emphasizing the idea that in order to understand abstract concepts, society must know its limitations. 

“We are humans, not gods,” he said. “The future of humanity exists in the knowledge of this information.”