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Troy Jollimore on Why Democracy Needs the Humanities
Posted on Apr 22, 2010
As a professor in a large state university system, I am quite familiar with the current state of American liberal arts education, at least in our public institutions of higher learning. And I am here to tell you: The news is not good. The public universities in general are in a sorry state, languishing under constantly dwindling funding and lack of public support. Class sizes are growing even as instructors are being let go. Funds for research and other intellectual activities are rapidly disappearing. Many instructors are not being paid their full salaries. And many universities have responded to the situation, or are considering responding, by slashing if not entirely eliminating humanities and arts programs—programs frequently regarded as expensive, nonessential luxuries, in a world increasingly focused on the economic bottom line.
As a result, an ever smaller number of students have at any point during their university careers the special, indeed irreplaceable experience of sitting in a room with a small number of their colleagues and discussing difficult ideas—ideas, in many cases, that are foundational to our civilization—with an instructor who is willing to challenge them and who has the time and energy to take their thoughts seriously. The anonymity and alienation of the large lecture hall or the online course has largely replaced the person-to-person interaction that was once considered the apotheosis, if not indeed the core, of the college experience.
Individual students often fail to realize, of course, just how much of a raw deal they are getting compared to their predecessors; since they spend only four years or so on campus, they are not aware of how much more crowded their classrooms are, or how much less attention their work and intellectual progress receive from their ever more put-upon instructors. But we professors, who tend to stay around for longer, are more vividly aware of the steepness of the decline. It has been true for a while, sadly, that quite a few students were pretty much illiterate when they entered public universities. What is becoming more and more true is that many students are still essentially illiterate when they leave.
Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities
By Martha C. Nussbaum
Princeton University Press, 178 pages
The universities’ plight simply reflects that of the country at large. The popularity of robustly and proudly ignorant politicians like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin might be the most obvious sign that the anti-intellectualism that has always haunted American public life has experienced a resurgence in the last decade or so, but the general contempt for the work of our educational institutions, and the corresponding unwillingness to provide them with adequate funding, is equally disturbing. Intelligence is mocked and knowledge is devalued: The common assumption is that anything worth knowing has already been discovered and can be instantly gleaned, cost-free, from Wikipedia. Meanwhile, the idea of wisdom has dropped out of public discourse altogether. Ask yourself: When was the last time you heard anyone use that word non-ironically? The idea that a liberal arts education might be good for anything other than indulging the effete sensibilities of a dreamy and impractical elite has fallen into considerable disrepute.
As I began by saying, I teach at a state university, and that has surely shaped my perceptions. Are things any better at the country’s top private schools? Such institutions, one might think, would be better sheltered from the effects of public apathy and the economic crisis. But Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, seems as alarmed as anyone. The prolific Nussbaum has authored many sizable philosophical tomes over the years, on topics including ethics and luck, the emotions (in general, and shame and disgust in particular), sex and justice, animal rights, and, most pertinently here, the philosophy of education. Her latest book, “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities,” is a slim manifesto that means to serve as a call to arms, one that wants to broadcast its message to as large an audience as possible. And the message is clear: The humanities—and hence democracy—are in trouble.
“Not for Profit” is concerned not just with American public universities but with the state of liberal arts education at various life stages and in democracies around the world. Still, the view Nussbaum arrives at is as dire and pessimistic as my own:
The claim that democracy needs the humanities, that the crisis in humanistic education leaves “the future of the world’s democracies hang[ing] in the balance,” is a strong one, and more hardheaded readers may respond with skepticism. As much as the humanities may enrich the lives of those privileged enough to devote themselves to them, they continue to strike many people as, essentially, frills. As long as a majority continues to see them this way they will be among the first things to be jettisoned when times get tough. Nussbaum’s contention is that this view is precisely the opposite of the truth: As the subtitle makes clear, the main part of “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities” is devoted to substantiating the claim that the skills taught by the humanities are “skills that are needed to keep democracies alive.”
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