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What Are the Arts, and Why Study Them?

The disciplines that huddle together under the banner called a faculty of arts may vary from one university to the next or even vary over time at the same university. What belongs to arts here may not be the same as what belongs to arts there; what used to belong to arts here twenty years ago now belongs to another faculty; or, what used to belong to arts as a discipline a few years ago is now its very own faculty.

This is because a faculty of arts is often a sort of crucible or matrix in which new university programs are born, some released, others transformed. In the past few years at the University of Winnipeg, for instance, a number of departments have been created within Arts, Anthropology has moved from Arts to Science, and two separate faculties—Business and Economics, Kinesiology (as of July 1, 2012)—have been created from Faculty of Arts departments. This is a quite common occurrence, and is nothing less than a witness to the continuing vitality of Arts and to its mission within the university.

The following departments and programs are currently housed within the Faculty of Arts at the University of Winnipeg:

Departments: Classics (Greek and Roman Studies); Criminal Justice; English; History; Indigenous Studies; Modern Languages and Literatures; Philosophy; Political Science; Psychology; Religion and Culture; Rhetoric, Writing and Communications; Sociology; Theatre and Film; Urban and Inner-City Studies; Women's and Gender Studies

Programs:  Biopsychology (Psychology); Dance Program Stream (Theatre and Film); Disability Studies Program (Sociology); East Asian Languages and Cultures (Religion and Culture); German-Canadian Studies (History); Mennonite Studies (History)

(For a list of departments with links to the individual departments, click here.)

It is perhaps difficult to see what all these have in common, but in a nutshell, a faculty of arts gathers together those disciplines dealing with the human world—with what humanity has created—as opposed to the natural or physical world, that the sciences deal with. This is likely more obvious in the case of, say, English Literature, Theatre and Film, or Philosophy; however, historians would argue that history is a human creation as well, and sociologists would argue that human society is too, and so on. And all would argue that the human world, because we have made it, is the only world we can really know.

The reason why arts disciplines have to be studied is an obvious one. Not many of us are overjoyed with what the world looks like these days, and if we are to change it, we must first know it. In the past, the leaders, or the agents of change—activists, politicians, university presidents, lawyers, journalists, teachers, educated citizens, etc.—traditionally came from arts.

They still do. Be one.