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Troy Jollimore on Why Democracy Needs the Humanities
Posted on Apr 22, 2010
In particular, Nussbaum identifies three sets of “abilities crucial to the health of any democracy internally, and to the creation of a decent world culture capable of constructively addressing the world’s most pressing problems”:
Developing students’ critical thinking abilities is a matter of what Nussbaum calls “Socratic pedagogy,” which encourages students to think for themselves rather than accepting traditional ideas or the pronouncements of authority. She delineates the line of European and American thinkers who have made major contributions to this approach: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel (whose “mystical flights” she mentions only to set aside, though this reader found his interest rather whetted), Bronson Alcott, Horace Mann and John Dewey. For Dewey, as for the Socratics in general, “the central problem with conventional methods of education is the passivity it encourages in students. […] Such a subservient attitude, bad for life in general, is fatal for democracy, since democracies will not survive without alert and active citizens.”
Socratic pedagogy, then, is meant to produce an ideal citizen, one who is “active, critical, curious, capable of resisting authority and peer pressure”—the kind of citizen who poses a threat to authoritarian regimes but who enables democracies to function. It does this by forcing students to fall back on their own powers of judgment and, particularly in Dewey’s case, by having them make connections between ideas and real-world objects, in a way that encourages students to see the ideas themselves as meaningful real-world entities rather than intellectual abstractions.
Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities
By Martha C. Nussbaum
Princeton University Press, 178 pages
The drawing of connections between ideas is also crucial to the second set of democratic abilities Nussbaum identifies: the ability to function as global citizens. In a cosmopolitan and interconnected world, being a good citizen of one’s own country means being a citizen of the world; and this requires a lot, both in terms of knowledge (“Think, for example, of what it takes to understand the origins of the products we use in our daily lives: our soft drinks, our clothing, our coffee, our food”) and in terms of imagination and empathy. Again, Dewey is invoked as a shining example of how education ought to function:
True global citizenship encourages intelligent and responsible decision-making, both on the personal and the political levels. It also encourages toleration, not in the minimal “live and let live” sense that is all too often taken as adequate when dealing with those unlike ourselves, but in the fuller sense of striving for a genuine understanding of others, of seeing the world from their perspective. The ability to employ one’s “narrative imagination”—the third of the abilities crucial to citizenship that Nussbaum identifies—is, she writes, best developed through literature and the arts, which help students build powers of imagination and creativity:
Nussbaum here and elsewhere recognizes that since the capacities to think critically and engage imaginatively and creatively with the world depend on what happens very early in life, and outside the classroom, schools and universities cannot provide the complete education that democratic citizens need. Still, the education system has a profound and essential role to play here—all the more so since the public cannot control what goes on in the privacy of people’s homes, but can, at least in theory, decide what happens in the schools. As should by now be clear, the very best thing that can happen in the schools, in her view, is not career preparation, or the packing of students’ heads full of facts, but rather the honing of the critical, analytical and imaginative skills one needs to make good sense of the facts—without which, as she reminds us, people are left at the mercy of unscrupulous manipulators:
Nussbaum’s defense of the value of the humanities is informed, intelligent and deeply plausible—so much so that many readers might find themselves somewhat at a loss as to how our society, and indeed the world in general, has reached the point where such a book is even needed. What could be more obvious, and thus less in need of a defense, than the claim that a strong grounding in the arts and humanities is a great good, both for the individual and for the society in which she lives?
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