Embracing Our Humanities

Why Emory is doubling down on the
study of what makes life worth living 

Why Emory is doubling down
on the study of

what makes life worth living. 

When she enrolled at Emory as an undergrad in the fall of 2021, Nadia Elhadi felt like she was at a crossroads.

In high school, Elhadi gravitated toward biology, specifically medicine. She envisioned a career as a physician, maybe even a surgeon. But she also harbored a longstanding passion for art. Some of her earliest memories were of walking through art museums, examining the paintings and sculptures, and even sitting in front of her own easel in art classes, learning to mimic her heroes and express her own vision.

So now, standing at the precipice of her professional life, Elhadi seemingly had a choice to make. Conventional wisdom would point her toward the security and stability of the science-based medical field; after all, pundits have been heralding the demise of the humanities — art, music, history, literature, philosophy and more — as viable fields of study for more than half a century. But Elhadi felt there had to be some value in knowing more than just how to diagnose and treat disease. Shouldn’t a doctor also understand her patients’ behavior, how they perceive the world and how that perception shapes the way they think, act and communicate?

Fortunately for Elhadi and students like her, Emory didn’t ask her to choose one path. Instead, the school encouraged her to take both. She is now majoring in pre-med neuroscience and behavioral biology with a minor in art history. “Essentially, it’s a way for me to formally learn about my two schools of interest,” Elhadi says. “I think having an overlap between my two fields helps with exercising different ways of thinking and learning.”

This sort of interdisciplinary thinking is at the heart of Emory’s new Initiative for Arts and Humanistic Inquiry, a major investment in faculty and creative programming geared to bolster the university’s considerable expertise in the humanities. 

At a time of rapid technological, societal and environmental change, scholars and artists who can shine a light on the human experience will help us face challenges and find new ways to grow and flourish.
—Ravi V. Bellamkonda, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs

Over the next three to four years, Emory will invest in hiring up to 30 new faculty members across five participating schools — Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Oxford College, Candler School of Theology, Emory School of Law and Goizueta Business School — to join the leading liberal arts teachers, scholars and creators already on its campuses. 

In addition, the university is underwriting expanded creative programming, both in and outside the classroom. Any full-time faculty members with innovative ideas can request funding to enhance scholarship and community building in the arts and humanities, including special workshops, expert panels, guest speakers, performances and more.

Both efforts will work in concert with expanded programming from the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry to boost scholarship of the human experience, foster collaboration and integrate holistic liberal arts education throughout the university.

“In an era when some are divesting in the humanities, Emory has decided to double down,” says Ravi V. Bellamkonda, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “We think humanistic inquiry is particularly essential at this critical juncture in our shared history. At a time of rapid technological, societal and environmental change, scholars and artists who can shine a light on the human experience will help us face challenges and find new ways to grow and flourish.”

In other words, Bellamkonda and Emory are betting that the influence of an education steeped in the humanities and arts can produce more than just well-rounded students. They believe that the skills and perspectives will be crucial in preserving our democracy and saving our planet. Further, they believe that a better appreciation of art, beauty, language, philosophy — the very things that make us human — will engender a world worth saving.

Provost's Insight


By Ravi V. Bellamkonda


Emory’s Initiative for Arts and Humanistic Inquiry is about more than just creating well-rounded students, workers and leaders. It’s also about making more engaged and better-informed citizens. The issues mentioned above — climate change, social justice, human rights, equality and political polarization — don’t just impact our jobs. They continually shape and color everything around us. An investment in a deeper understanding of humanity is a bet on making a richer world — and possibly saving it altogether.

“When we’re bombarded by multiple sources, some better than others, presenting the state of the world in a variety of ways, we need to discern what is a legitimate source and how to make sense of competing narratives,” says Freeman. “Through the humanities, students are taught to gather information, narratives and stories, and to read ‘against the grain.’ They are taught to be able to attribute points of view to different speakers, gather information and arrive at a coherent argument, and communicate it in an accessible and clear way, whether that’s in person, on the page or through electronic media, no matter what their major is.”

Perhaps no issue is in more immediate need of humanistic consideration than the emerging technology of artificial intelligence (AI). The almighty algorithm has invaded nearly every facet of our daily lives and is evolving so quickly, we’ve had scant time as a society to consider the ethical implications and creative liberties at stake.

However, Emory is further ahead of the curve than most in taking a humanistic approach to the design and use of these cutting-edge technologies. Through its AI.Humanity initiative, a major effort launched in 2021, Emory faculty, staff and students across every academic area are collaboratively exploring not only how AI can be implemented, but also how it should — and shouldn’t — be used.

In many cases, the humanities provide the language to debate these matters in a productive way. For example, since so much of machine learning incorporates the creative output of artists — from music to literature and even to paintings — it’s worth considering the perspectives of those artists themselves. 

“Quotation in music has been around forever,” says Kevin Karnes, associate dean for the arts at Emory and a professor of music. “Even looking to the 1980s and 1990s and the sampling technology used then, you see that, to some extent, we’ve been here before. And when we’re creating with modern tools that anyone can access, we may not even know where the content comes from. It raises profound questions of what is an artistic work and who owns it?”

The fine arts themselves should not be overlooked when discussing social justice, human rights and other political hot topics. So often songs, documentaries, films, novels and paintings are voices of the voiceless, powerful ways of drawing public attention and empathy toward societal wrongs. 

That’s why last year, Emory’s Office of the Provost allocated $1.4 million in grant funding to projects focused on the socially engaged arts, which included a feature film about a daughter whose mother was incarcerated and digital marketing tools for Central American coffee farmers telling their stories.

Karnes says that was the first step in a continuing push to bring programming to campus that will do much more than entertain students. “I hope it will enable us to bring in fantastic visual artists and musicians who are wrestling with these questions of the day,” he says. “This isn’t just hiring a pianist to play — it’s collectively enriching the campus as a whole.”

Alumnus and Emory arts pioneer Carlton Mackey 05T agrees. “I believe that art is a powerful force for change and a conduit for transformation,” says Mackey, former director of the Emory Ethics and the Arts program and co-founder of the Arts & Social Justice Fellows program. 

He sees Emory’s redoubled focus on humanities and the arts coming at a truly poignant time. “Our world has drastically changed in the past few years with the pandemic, the racial reckoning, the polarizing nature of politics, the climate change, the wars,” he says. “Rooting the investment in the arts and arts programming is more critical than ever. Every tool that we can employ to heal these fractures will help create better understanding and bring people together.”

He’s witnessed it firsthand in classes co-taught by Emory’s Arts & Social Justice Fellows: “Art helps to concretize what students are learning,” says Mackey, who is now assistant director of community dialogue and engagement at the High Museum of Art. “Not only does it give them a different entry point and help them better understand their lessons, but also it often makes them more interested and passionate about their studies and gives them a new language to explain what they’ve learned.”

Faculty Insight

‘BEOWULF’ BY BONFIRE: The Power of Poetry

By Sarah Higinbotham


Obviously, Emory’s redoubled commitment to the humanities could have far-reaching implications, impacting the future of the world and its workforce. But maybe the most important thing that an increased emphasis on art, literature, history and philosophy can accomplish is more individualized and personal. After all, these are the things that shape the way we see our lives — and ourselves.

For instance, Goizueta Business School’s Longhofer says that studies show more and more people are looking for purpose in their work. They don’t feel seen or heard — how could they when they are treated like another data point?

Longhofer suggests that, in addition to giving people the tools to communicate their wants and frustrations in their jobs, the humanities also provide a lens through which we might take a different look at our professions and find just the kind of meaning we’ve been looking for, or find another job that is more fulfilling.

Outside of the workplace, in a world filled with stress and uncertainty, the arts and humanities are the very things that provide our lives with meaning. 

A good book, a catchy song, a previously unwritten history, a unique approach to philosophy are much more than escapes from reality — they’re new ways to approach it and experience it. In short, they are some of the things that make life worth living.

“It’s the pleasure of walking through an art gallery and just enjoying a perplexing image,” says Freeman. “It’s the beauty of a chamber concert, allowing emotions to unfold and respond to a sensory experience. It’s the novel’s capacity to immerse us in a character’s mind, in another time and place. It’s the fabric of a rich human life. As we highlight the important practical capacities and knowledge fostered by humanistic inquiry, let’s not forget that, in addition to good communication and analytical skills, what we get from the humanities is joy.”

Student Insight


By Shannan Adams 24Ox 26C

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