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Book Review

Troy Jollimore on Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

Troy Jollimore
Reviewer
Troy Jollimore is Associate Professor in the philosophy department at California State University, Chico. His reviews and essays have appeared in venues including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Book…
Troy Jollimore

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.

book cover

Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

By Martha C. Nussbaum

Princeton University Press, 178 pages

Buy the book

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:

Radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.

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.”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”:

These abilities are associated with the humanities and the arts: the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as “a citizen of the world”; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.

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.

book cover

Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

By Martha C. Nussbaum

Princeton University Press, 178 pages

Buy the book

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:

In his Laboratory School, for example, even very young children would learn to ask about the processes that produced the things they were using every day. Weaving cloth, they would learn where the materials came from, how they were made, and what chain of labor and exchange led to the materials being there in the classroom. Typically this process would lead them far from home, not only into regions of their own country about which they previously knew little, but also into many other nations. […] “[T]he great thing,” he concluded, “is that each shall have the education which enables him to see within his daily work all there is in it of large and human significance.”

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:

The cultivation of sympathy has been a key part of the best modern ideas of democratic education, in both Western and non-Western nations. Much of this cultivation must take place in the family, but schools, and even colleges and universities, also play an important role. If they are to play it well, they must give a central role in the curriculum to humanities and the arts, cultivating a participatory type of education that activates and refines the capacity to see the world through another person’s eyes.

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:

A catalogue of facts, without the ability to asses them, or to understand how a narrative is assembled from evidence, is almost as bad as ignorance, since the pupil will not be able to distinguish ignorant stereotypes purveyed by political and cultural leaders from the truth, or bogus claims from valid ones.

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?The current disregard for the value of the humanities is largely due to two beliefs: first, that the humanities contribute little to economic growth; and second, that human well-being depends primarily on such growth. As it happens, both beliefs are false. The first belief ignores how much economic growth depends on creativity, innovation, critical thinking and even the possession of background knowledge and broad understanding, as opposed to the sort of merely instrumental rationality and technical proficiency emphasized by programs of career-oriented practical training. “[E]ven if we were just aiming at economic success,” Nussbaum writes, “leading corporate executives understand very well the importance of creating a corporate culture in which critical voices are not silenced, a culture of both individuality and accountability.” Elsewhere she argues:

Leading business educators have long understood that a developed capacity to imagine is a keystone of a healthy business culture. Innovation requires minds that are flexible, open, and creative; literature and the arts cultivate these capacities. When they are lacking, a business culture quickly loses steam.

But it is the second false belief that is more fundamentally mistaken. “Empirical studies,” she writes, “have by now shown that political liberty, health, and education are all poorly correlated with [economic] growth.” Thus those who defend the humanities solely on the basis that they contribute to economic progress—as if that were all they are good for—are selling them short. President Barack Obama comes in for particular criticism here, on the basis of his speech on education of March 2009:

book cover

Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

By Martha C. Nussbaum

Princeton University Press, 178 pages

Buy the book

Never once in this entire lengthy speech does he mention the democratic goals I have emphasized. And when he mentions critical thinking—once—it is in the context of what businesses need for profitability. We need, he says, to develop tests that measure “whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity.” This one gesture toward the humanities—in a speech largely devoted to the praise of science and technology—is clearly a narrow allusion to the role of certain skills in business advancement. And the proposed assessment—a strengthened form of [No Child Left Behind]—shows very clearly that the humanistic parts of the sentence are not the core of the proposal.

That a president swept into office by the rhetoric of hope and change, and whose own life circumstances would seem to speak both to the transformative power of education and to its importance for responsible citizenship, would embrace the business model for evaluating education is indeed dispiriting. (As Nussbaum rightly points out, Obama’s praise of Singapore and other Far Eastern nations—which, as he says, spend “less time teaching things that don’t matter, and more time teaching things that do”—is deeply worrisome, given that the “things that don’t matter” seem quite clearly to include anything not directly connected to a student’s economic success.)

Not, of course, that those who value the arts and humanities properly ought to oppose economic growth—though Nussbaum does, at least at one point, acknowledge the possibility of conflict, writing that those who take economic growth as their only goal

will do more than ignore the arts. They will fear them. For a cultivated and developed sympathy is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore inequality. It is easier to treat people as objects to be manipulated if you have never learned any other way to see them. […] Art is the great enemy of that obtuseness, and artists (unless thoroughly browbeaten and corrupted) are not the reliable servants of any ideology, even a basically good one—they always ask the imagination to move beyond its usual confines, to see the world in new ways.

To encourage this “cultivated and developed sympathy” to flourish rather than wither and die in what Rabindranath Tagore (the Indian statesman and astonishingly multifaceted artist who pops up again and again in Nussbaum’s recent writings) called a “gradual suicide through shrinkage of the soul”: This is what the liberal arts are good for, if only we will allow them to do their work and give them the support they need.

I admire this book, as I do all Nussbaum’s work, and I could not be more sympathetic to its message. (Which is not to say that I think it will change anything, since those who most need to read it are least likely to, or most likely to dismiss it.) Still, I must admit that the best response I have yet seen to the demand that educational institutions evaluate their worth solely in terms of economic “impact” has been that of Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn, who responded to such a request from the British Department of Business, Innovation and Skills as follows:

Most cathedrals of Europe were built more than 1,000 years after the original source of the ideas that issued in them died, and the greatest single edifice owning his impact was built over 1,500 years after the same event. Even The Communist Manifesto had its main “impact” nearly 70 years after it was written. Nobody has done a controlled experiment on what the impact of either Christianity or Communism was, but only an idiot therefore believes that the jury should stay out on whether they had any.

Troy Jollimore is associate professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico. His book “Tom Thomson in Purgatory” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry in 2006.

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