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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dear All,

Peyton has asked me to re-post my submission. Here it is:

I’ve been asked to comment on the central chapter of Not for Profit, which is entitled “Socratic Pedagogy: The Importance of Argument.” This chapter is the centerpiece of the book’s argument, I think, since Nussbaum persistently evokes the connections between Socratic critical thinking and flourishing democratic politics. Like previous contributors, I have reservations about the arguments Nussbaum offers. I would like to pose several challenges and questions, in the spirit of a friendly critique, and in the hope that they will stimulate further discussion about these important subjects.


I find a certain tension between humanistic education and the “values” or convictions, not to say dogmas, that underlie Nussbaum’s enterprise. (The scare quotes are meant to signal an irony that Nussbaum would find unwelcome. As my colleagues Edward Andrew and Ronald Beiner have argued, the term “value” in Nussbaum’s sense is originally drawn from the vocabulary of the marketplace. It fossilizes both the instrumental calculations characteristic of the marketplace and the subjective norms of evaluation that govern economic transactions – norms that are alarmingly ill-suited to the “not for profit” theme and, more deeply, to the universalizing, naturalistic arguments Nussbaum offers elsewhere in the “capabilities approach” and in the scientific and Freudian paradigms of human psychology found in Chapter 3 of the present volume.)


Lawrie Balfour alluded to the tension between humanistic education and Nussbaum’s democratic convictions, via her reference to Louis Menand’s recent essay on “why we have college.” With Balfour and Menand, we might explicitly raise as a paradox the “normalizing” tendencies of contemporary liberal education – the tendency of universities to extol intellectual autonomy while producing conformists. This paradox becomes especially acute in Nussbaum’s discussion of Socratic pedagogy. Nussbaum knows, and knows that she knows, perhaps as befits a manifesto, that democracy, equality, autonomy, participatory citizenship, and so on, are good things; she offers a clear and precise anatomy of the human soul based on modern social science and cognitive neuroscience; and she presents a progressive history of childhood educational philosophies that culminates in her own emphasis on “choice” (70-71), on “practical engagement” and “real life” (66), and on the close interconnections between philosophical work and pragmatic political activity. The students in Nussbaum’s university will presumably come to recognize and appreciate the same “values.”


But Socrates, along with whatever pedagogy benefits from association with him, knows that he does not know “the greatest things,” i.e. the precise character of human excellence (or “virtue”) and the human good. This knowledge of one’s own ignorance is called “human wisdom” in Plato’s Apology. (To see the importance of this point, we can, and probably should, leave aside the myriad questions surrounding the relationship between the historical Socrates and the Socrateses presented by Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes, and Aristotle – not to mention the relationship between Plato’s Socrates as represented in Plato’s short, so-called “Socratic” dialogues, and Plato’s Socrates as represented in longer, more ambitious philosophical works such as the Republic or the Phaedrus.) Socrates’ awareness of his own epistemic limitations led him to believe that the only life worthy of a human being was one of continuous, rational self-examination, usually conducted in dialogue with others. Such self-scrutiny or self-auditing had, in principle, no limits: it extended, for example, even to the question, explored thoroughly in Plato’s Gorgias, of whether doing or receiving injustice provides greater benefits to an individual, or to the question, in the Republic, of whether philosophers should rule. Are these questions genuinely “up for grabs” within Nussbaum’s framework?


Socratic inquiry also questioned the goodness of democracy as a regime-type, and, of course, there is no reason in principle why philosophical questioning should feel itself constrained by Nussbaum’s liberal, progressive opinions about politics, ethics, and the human good. Hence, a humanistic education, and particularly Socratic pedagogy, is worthy of its name only if it invites students, along with their instructors and fellow-travelers, to “live the questions” surrounding what it means to live a good human life – including questions about the goodness and character of cherished ideals such as freedom, equality, and even democracy itself. There is not a seamless continuity, as Nussbaum suggests, between philosophical inquiry and the practices of democratic citizenship. And one of the questions a humanistic education might or must address is precisely the relation of philosophy to democracy, and vice-versa. (And perhaps philosophy has more important things to worry about, anyway – at least it’s worth raising the question.)


For if the European and North American traditions of philosophy have persistently raised questions about democracy as a regime-type, then democracy equally, as Tocqueville and Aristophanes recognized in their different ways, has always harboured questions about the benefits and trustworthiness of philosophical inquiry, not to mention the pursuit of a philosophical life. The Athenian democracy executed Socrates and thought that philosophers were buffoons. In 1835-1840, Tocqueville foreshadowed Nussbaum’s present lament, when he predicted that Americans would increasingly emphasize the profit-motive over the study of classical literature, theoretical science or mathematics, and speculative philosophy. Tocqueville, of course, offered a comparative analysis of democracy with aristocracy and pinpointed the features of democracy that tend to militate against the careful and time-consuming work required for philosophical inquiry. In his recent book Human Dignity, in fact, George Kateb picked up this line of thought and asked whether democracy as a regime type tends to undermine the development of the arts or corrode the supportive culture that enables philosophy to flourish. Is democracy as such, or only a corrupt democracy, hostile to the liberal arts and sciences?


It’s a good question, but an uncomfortable one – and not one well suited to the public speeches of President Obama, who, later in the book, draws fire from Nussbaum, despite the very real rhetorical and political constraints under which he operates. Imagine President Obama arguing forcefully, during his upcoming campaign, for the educational importance of questioning whether democracy is the best regime. But that’s what Socrates would have him do, and Socrates would then go on to ask whether politics altogether is an important, or rather an insignificant, sphere of human activity, by comparison with pursuing philosophical questions about the “greatest things.”


To put these points differently, Nussbaum doesn’t explore very deeply the categories of “democracy” and the “humanities” that are at the heart of her passionate manifesto. Yet, if the questions are to become vivid and our practical judgments are to make sense, then we need to find a more searching account of these categories and of their ambiguous interrelations. At all events, a sound humanistic education will not simply produce likeminded individuals, but rather non-conformists, sometimes at a very deep level of non-conformity. Even if democracy tends to corrupt humanistic study through emphasizing the profit-motive, perhaps equally its goodness lies, at least in part, and in its liberal manifestations, in granting us the freedom to pursue Socratic questions to the hilt, wherever they may lead.


I can’t resist pointing out that right in the opening sentence of Nussbaum’s chapter these ambiguities assert themselves with great intensity. Here is Nussbaum’s opening sentence: “Socrates proclaimed that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being’” (47). And here is Socrates’ own statement, from the Platonic Apology: “If on the other hand I say that the greatest good for man is to fashion arguments each day about virtue and the other things you hear me discussing when I examine myself and others, and that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being, you will believe what I say still less” (38a, tr. Allen, adapted). Leave aside the subtle but significant point that, according to Socrates himself, the democratic jurors could not be persuaded that the best life was the life of rational self-examination. The real question is this: Is Socrates making a robustly demanding claim to the effect that only the philosophical life, only a life devoted to continuous questioning, every day, is worth living for a human being, and that a life devoted to democratic citizenship, not to mention productive economic activity, is not worth living for a human being? Or does his remark, which is not casual in any way, admit of degrees of self-examination and thus of a spectrum of lives ranging from less worthwhile to more worthwhile? And would a committed, progressive, cosmopolitan democrat, such as Nussbaum, even tolerate this line of questioning?


To some extent I hesitate to make these remarks, because I favour both democracy and a humanistic education; and I don’t want to weaken the cause of either by suggesting that the two are in conflict. But it would be less than honest to skim over the thorny tensions and paradoxes that characterize their relationship – paradoxes to which Socrates’ life and arguments draw attention. Hence, even more intolerable questions will necessarily follow. It’s true that Socrates represents himself as a gadfly rousing a sluggish democratic horse, as Nussbaum points out; but, as Nussbaum does not point out, Socrates also asks in the Apology whether horses are better trained by an inexpert multitude, such as the Athenian democratic citizenry, or by an expert horse-trainer – to which the answer is obvious. And then, in a characteristic move, Socrates proceeds to question the very idea of expertise in educating human beings about the greatest things. And so we are left, I think, not with a progressive narrative that confirms our pre-existing opinions, but rather with a host of new questions, now hopefully clearer and better defined questions, that raise genuinely serious, provocative, and uncomfortable issues about democracy, humanistic education, and human flourishing.


As I have been suggesting, Nussbaum too readily instrumentalizes humanistic education – if not for business, then for citizenship. She fails to reflect seriously on the intrinsic worth of studying the liberal arts and sciences. Since others on the blog (and in the wider world) have previously levelled this criticism against Nussbaum, I limit myself to two additional, and equally uncomfortable, observations on this front. First, Nussbaum’s “humanities-for-democracy” view is paradoxical in that, if it is correct, then it may have anti-democratic implications. For if humanistic learning makes us better citizens, then the professoriate should be distinctively excellent citizens. Professors should be as far superior in citizenship to their fellow citizens, as they are superior in intellectual achievement to their undergraduates. Down this path lies the rule of philosopher-kings. I say this not so much to denigrate philosopher kings as to show that this familiar argument has more than a whiff of paradox about it. But, as Socrates will ask, is there such a thing as political wisdom, or are there thresholds of good citizenship beyond which further distinctions do not matter, or do not matter much for the successful practice of democracy? Nussbaum doesn’t raise the question – and in that way she proves to behave less Socratically than she recommends.


Second, by advancing instrumental arguments for the humanities’ significance, Nussbaum may unwittingly promote the cause of the humanities’ detractors. As Stanley Fish has often stressed, even the best humanistic education doesn’t necessarily produce good democratic citizens; and, conversely, good democratic citizens can arise in a variety of ways. The connections between humanistic education and democratic citizenship often fail to convince. As a result, Nussbaum’s rivals may come to believe that even leading academics have failed to produce a coherent account of humanistic education. Sadly, the most powerful justification remains unspoken: that humanistic study has intrinsic worth, as the effort to realize and perfect our highest human capacities. Nussbaum alludes to this point briefly on p.9.


Along the same lines, I worry about Nussbaum’s uses and abuses of history for the sake of democracy. After discussing Socrates and the Athenian democracy, Nussbaum offers a selective treatment of modern educational philosophers whose work embodies different strands of what she calls “Socratic pedagogy.” These include Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Bronson Alcott, Horace Mann, John Dewey, Rabindranath Tagore, and Matthew Lipman, who has developed an extremely interesting “Philosophy for Children” curriculum at Montclair State University. I’m sympathetic with the educational ideals outlined in this section, including active learning; a rigorous focus on logic, critical reasoning, and the structure of arguments; cultivation of emotional intelligence and imagination; and an emphasis on self-government, self-reliance, and freedom. Others on the blog have said that they don’t know how to cultivate all of these qualities, and I don’t, either: but they are still worthwhile educational objectives, I think, which experienced teachers, in particular circumstances, might have the good sense and situational appreciation to embody in practice.


However, my worry is that, in discussing both democratic Athens and the history of educational philosophy, Nussbaum offers a highly selective and tendentious narrative – one that suits her case, in a way, but also one that smooths over the rough edges of history and unduly simplifies the unruly facts that come down to us. To her credit, Nussbaum explores in other chapters the necessity of teaching history as a set of arguments about highly imperfect evidence, rather than as a static narrative to be digested and regurgitated at appropriate moments. Elsewhere in the volume, moreover, she inspiringly denounces the BJP’s jingoistic and triumphal appropriations of India’s history (e.g., 21-22). Yet, in discussing the Athenian democrats, Nussbaum simplistically charges that, according to Thucydides, “Rarely if ever did they examine their major policy objectives, or systematically ask how the diverse things they valued could fit together” (49). Nussbaum enters this statement in order to explain why “this thriving democracy” needed to be “stung into greater wakefulness” by Socratic argument.


In this section, as before, Nussbaum fails to practice what she recommends and risks turning her historical analysis into a political morality tale. Like all other successful democracies, the Athenian democracy did indeed examine major policy objectives (how could it not?) and consider what a good life among democrats could or should be. One of the central texts illustrating this point comes from Thucydides himself: think of Pericles’ Funeral Oration in Book II of Thucydides’ History. As Clifford Orwin, Arlene Saxonhouse, and others have argued, moreover, the Mytilenian Debate with which Nussbaum indicts Athens actually shows the Athenian democracy virtuously revising ill-founded decisions in the light of further argument. The Athenian democrats examined and reconsidered their views – so that it is incorrect to say, with Nussbaum, that important policy matters and many human lives “were left to chance rather than reasoned debate” (50). As a great deal of recent work has illustrated, in fact, the Athenian democracy itself practiced a politics of virtue that could possibly stand as a model of reasoned discourse and cultural education for contemporary democracies that do not offer their citizens such direct experiences of political debate or action.


The main point, in the end, is that Nussbaum’s analysis lacks the richness and complexity that we have come to expect from her work and that these all-important subjects demand. The greatest American statesmen (not to mention thinkers) have always understood that democratic citizens are capable of grasping complex arguments that adequately address the problems and opportunities of democratic politics. On the other hand, as Tocqueville pointed out, “The habit of inattention ought to be considered the greatest vice of the democratic mind” (DA II 3.15, tr. Mansfield/Winthrop). I worry that Nussbaum’s manifesto both expresses and promotes the prevailing characteristics of our time, instead of helping to counteract them.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chpt. 4 - Socratic Pedagogy

Hello everyone!  Ryan Balot's post on "Socratic Pedagogy" (chpt. 4)  is below.


Peyton


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I’ve been asked to comment on the central chapter of Not for Profit, which is entitled “Socratic Pedagogy: The Importance of Argument.”  This chapter is the centerpiece of the book’s argument, I think, since Nussbaum persistently evokes the connections between Socratic critical thinking and flourishing democratic politics.  Like previous contributors, I have reservations about the arguments Nussbaum offers.  I would like to pose several challenges and questions, in the spirit of a friendly critique, and in the hope that they will stimulate further discussion about these important subjects.

I find a certain tension between humanistic education and the “values” or convictions, not to say dogmas, that underlie Nussbaum’s enterprise.  (The scare quotes are meant to signal an irony that Nussbaum would find unwelcome.  As my colleagues Edward Andrew and Ronald Beiner have argued, the term “value” in Nussbaum’s sense is originally drawn from the vocabulary of the marketplace.  It fossilizes both the instrumental calculations characteristic of the marketplace and the subjective norms of evaluation that govern economic transactions – norms that are alarmingly ill-suited to the “not for profit” theme and, more deeply, to the universalizing, naturalistic arguments Nussbaum offers elsewhere in the “capabilities approach” and in the scientific and Freudian paradigms of human psychology found in Chapter 3 of the present volume.)

Lawrie Balfour alluded to the tension between humanistic education and Nussbaum’s democratic convictions, via her reference to Louis Menand’s recent essay on “why we have college.”  With Balfour and Menand, we might explicitly raise as a paradox the “normalizing” tendencies of contemporary liberal education – the tendency of universities to extol intellectual autonomy while producing conformists.  This paradox becomes especially acute in Nussbaum’s discussion of Socratic pedagogy.  Nussbaum knows, and knows that she knows, perhaps as befits a manifesto, that democracy, equality, autonomy, participatory citizenship, and so on, are good things; she offers a clear and precise anatomy of the human soul based on modern social science and cognitive neuroscience; and she presents a progressive history of childhood educational philosophies that culminates in her own emphasis on “choice” (70-71), on “practical engagement” and “real life” (66), and on the close interconnections between philosophical work and pragmatic political activity.  The students in Nussbaum’s university will presumably come to recognize and appreciate the same “values.”

But Socrates, along with whatever pedagogy benefits from association with him, knows that he does not know “the greatest things,” i.e. the precise character of human excellence (or “virtue”) and the human good.  This knowledge of one’s own ignorance is called “human wisdom” in Plato’s Apology.  (To see the importance of this point, we can, and probably should, leave aside the myriad questions surrounding the relationship between the historical Socrates and the Socrateses presented by Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes, and Aristotle – not to mention the relationship between Plato’s Socrates as represented in Plato’s short, so-called “Socratic” dialogues, and Plato’s Socrates as represented in longer, more ambitious philosophical works such as the Republic or the Phaedrus.)  Socrates’ awareness of his own epistemic limitations led him to believe that the only life worthy of a human being was one of continuous, rational self-examination, usually conducted in dialogue with others.  Such self-scrutiny or self-auditing had, in principle, no limits: it extended, for example, even to the question, explored thoroughly in Plato’s Gorgias, of whether doing or receiving injustice provides greater benefits to an individual, or to the question, in the Republic, of whether philosophers should rule.  Are these questions genuinely “up for grabs” within Nussbaum’s framework?

Socratic inquiry also questioned the goodness of democracy as a regime-type, and, of course, there is no reason in principle why philosophical questioning should feel itself constrained by Nussbaum’s liberal, progressive opinions about politics, ethics, and the human good.  Hence, a humanistic education, and particularly Socratic pedagogy, is worthy of its name only if it invites students, along with their instructors and fellow-travelers, to “live the questions” surrounding what it means to live a good human life – including questions about the goodness and character of cherished ideals such as freedom, equality, and even democracy itself.  There is not a seamless continuity, as Nussbaum suggests, between philosophical inquiry and the practices of democratic citizenship.  And one of the questions a humanistic education might or must address is precisely the relation of philosophy to democracy, and vice-versa.  (And perhaps philosophy has more important things to worry about, anyway – at least it’s worth raising the question.)

For if the European and North American traditions of philosophy have persistently raised questions about democracy as a regime-type, then democracy equally, as Tocqueville and Aristophanes recognized in their different ways, has always harboured questions about the benefits and trustworthiness of philosophical inquiry, not to mention the pursuit of a philosophical life.  The Athenian democracy executed Socrates and thought that philosophers were buffoons.  In 1835-1840, Tocqueville foreshadowed Nussbaum’s present lament, when he predicted that Americans would increasingly emphasize the profit-motive over the study of classical literature, theoretical science or mathematics, and speculative philosophy.  Tocqueville, of course, offered a comparative analysis of democracy with aristocracy and pinpointed the features of democracy that tend to militate against the careful and time-consuming work required for philosophical inquiry.  In his recent book Human Dignity, in fact, George Kateb picked up this line of thought and asked whether democracy as a regime type tends to undermine the development of the arts or corrode the supportive culture that enables philosophy to flourish.  Is democracy as such, or only a corrupt democracy, hostile to the liberal arts and sciences?

It’s a good question, but an uncomfortable one – and not one well suited to the public speeches of President Obama, who, later in the book, draws fire from Nussbaum, despite the very real rhetorical and political constraints under which he operates.  Imagine President Obama arguing forcefully, during his upcoming campaign, for the educational importance of questioning whether democracy is the best regime.  But that’s what Socrates would have him do, and Socrates would then go on to ask whether politics altogether is an important, or rather an insignificant, sphere of human activity, by comparison with pursuing philosophical questions about the “greatest things.”

To put these points differently, Nussbaum doesn’t explore very deeply the categories of “democracy” and the “humanities” that are at the heart of her passionate manifesto.  Yet, if the questions are to become vivid and our practical judgments are to make sense, then we need to find a more searching account of these categories and of their ambiguous interrelations.  At all events, a sound humanistic education will not simply produce likeminded individuals, but rather non-conformists, sometimes at a very deep level of non-conformity.  Even if democracy tends to corrupt humanistic study through emphasizing the profit-motive, perhaps equally its goodness lies, at least in part, and in its liberal manifestations, in granting us the freedom to pursue Socratic questions to the hilt, wherever they may lead.

I can’t resist pointing out that right in the opening sentence of Nussbaum’s chapter these ambiguities assert themselves with great intensity.  Here is Nussbaum’s opening sentence: “Socrates proclaimed that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being’” (47).  And here is Socrates’ own statement, from the Platonic Apology: “If on the other hand I say that the greatest good for man is to fashion arguments each day about virtue and the other things you hear me discussing when I examine myself and others, and that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being, you will believe what I say still less” (38a, tr. Allen, adapted).  Leave aside the subtle but significant point that, according to Socrates himself, the democratic jurors could not be persuaded that the best life was the life of rational self-examination.  The real question is this: Is Socrates making a robustly demanding claim to the effect that only the philosophical life, only a life devoted to continuous questioning, every day, is worth living for a human being, and that a life devoted to democratic citizenship, not to mention productive economic activity, is not worth living for a human being?  Or does his remark, which is not casual in any way, admit of degrees of self-examination and thus of a spectrum of lives ranging from less worthwhile to more worthwhile?  And would a committed, progressive, cosmopolitan democrat, such as Nussbaum, even tolerate this line of questioning?

To some extent I hesitate to make these remarks, because I favour both democracy and a humanistic education; and I don’t want to weaken the cause of either by suggesting that the two are in conflict.  But it would be less than honest to skim over the thorny tensions and paradoxes that characterize their relationship – paradoxes to which Socrates’ life and arguments draw attention.  Hence, even more intolerable questions will necessarily follow.  It’s true that Socrates represents himself as a gadfly rousing a sluggish democratic horse, as Nussbaum points out; but, as Nussbaum does not point out, Socrates also asks in the Apology whether horses are better trained by an inexpert multitude, such as the Athenian democratic citizenry, or by an expert horse-trainer – to which the answer is obvious.  And then, in a characteristic move, Socrates proceeds to question the very idea of expertise in educating human beings about the greatest things.  And so we are left, I think, not with a progressive narrative that confirms our pre-existing opinions, but rather with a host of new questions, now hopefully clearer and better defined questions, that raise genuinely serious, provocative, and uncomfortable issues about democracy, humanistic education, and human flourishing.

As I have been suggesting, Nussbaum too readily instrumentalizes humanistic education – if not for business, then for citizenship.  She fails to reflect seriously on the intrinsic worth of studying the liberal arts and sciences.  Since others on the blog (and in the wider world) have previously levelled this criticism against Nussbaum, I limit myself to two additional, and equally uncomfortable, observations on this front.  First, Nussbaum’s “humanities-for-democracy” view is paradoxical in that, if it is correct, then it may have anti-democratic implications.  For if humanistic learning makes us better citizens, then the professoriate should be distinctively excellent citizens.  Professors should be as far superior in citizenship to their fellow citizens, as they are superior in intellectual achievement to their undergraduates.  Down this path lies the rule of philosopher-kings.  I say this not so much to denigrate philosopher kings as to show that this familiar argument has more than a whiff of paradox about it.  But, as Socrates will ask, is there such a thing as political wisdom, or are there thresholds of good citizenship beyond which further distinctions do not matter, or do not matter much for the successful practice of democracy?  Nussbaum doesn’t raise the question – and in that way she proves to behave less Socratically than she recommends.

Second, by advancing instrumental arguments for the humanities’ significance, Nussbaum may unwittingly promote the cause of the humanities’ detractors.  As Stanley Fish has often stressed, even the best humanistic education doesn’t necessarily produce good democratic citizens; and, conversely, good democratic citizens can arise in a variety of ways.  The connections between humanistic education and democratic citizenship often fail to convince.  As a result, Nussbaum’s rivals may come to believe that even leading academics have failed to produce a coherent account of humanistic education.  Sadly, the most powerful justification remains unspoken: that humanistic study has intrinsic worth, as the effort to realize and perfect our highest human capacities.  Nussbaum alludes to this point briefly on p.9.

Along the same lines, I worry about Nussbaum’s uses and abuses of history for the sake of democracy.  After discussing Socrates and the Athenian democracy, Nussbaum offers a selective treatment of modern educational philosophers whose work embodies different strands of what she calls “Socratic pedagogy.”  These include Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Bronson Alcott, Horace Mann, John Dewey, Rabindranath Tagore, and Matthew Lipman, who has developed an extremely interesting “Philosophy for Children” curriculum at Montclair State University.  I’m sympathetic with the educational ideals outlined in this section, including active learning; a rigorous focus on logic, critical reasoning, and the structure of arguments; cultivation of emotional intelligence and imagination; and an emphasis on self-government, self-reliance, and freedom.  Others on the blog have said that they don’t know how to cultivate all of these qualities, and I don’t, either: but they are still worthwhile educational objectives, I think, which experienced teachers, in particular circumstances, might have the good sense and situational appreciation to embody in practice.

However, my worry is that, in discussing both democratic Athens and the history of educational philosophy, Nussbaum offers a highly selective and tendentious narrative – one that suits her case, in a way, but also one that smooths over the rough edges of history and unduly simplifies the unruly facts that come down to us.  To her credit, Nussbaum explores in other chapters the necessity of teaching history as a set of arguments about highly imperfect evidence, rather than as a static narrative to be digested and regurgitated at appropriate moments.  Elsewhere in the volume, moreover, she inspiringly denounces the BJP’s jingoistic and triumphal appropriations of India’s history (e.g., 21-22).  Yet, in discussing the Athenian democrats, Nussbaum simplistically charges that, according to Thucydides, “Rarely if ever did they examine their major policy objectives, or systematically ask how the diverse things they valued could fit together” (49).  Nussbaum enters this statement in order to explain why “this thriving democracy” needed to be “stung into greater wakefulness” by Socratic argument.

In this section, as before, Nussbaum fails to practice what she recommends and risks turning her historical analysis into a political morality tale.  Like all other successful democracies, the Athenian democracy did indeed examine major policy objectives (how could it not?) and consider what a good life among democrats could or should be.  One of the central texts illustrating this point comes from Thucydides himself: think of Pericles’ Funeral Oration in Book II of Thucydides’ History.  As Clifford Orwin, Arlene Saxonhouse, and others have argued, moreover, the Mytilenian Debate with which Nussbaum indicts Athens actually shows the Athenian democracy virtuously revising ill-founded decisions in the light of further argument.  The Athenian democrats examined and reconsidered their views – so that it is incorrect to say, with Nussbaum, that important policy matters and many human lives “were left to chance rather than reasoned debate” (50).  As a great deal of recent work has illustrated, in fact, the Athenian democracy itself practiced a politics of virtue that could possibly stand as a model of reasoned discourse and cultural education for contemporary democracies that do not offer their citizens such direct experiences of political debate or action.

The main point, in the end, is that Nussbaum’s analysis lacks the richness and complexity that we have come to expect from her work and that these all-important subjects demand.  The greatest American statesmen (not to mention thinkers) have always understood that democratic citizens are capable of grasping complex arguments that adequately address the problems and opportunities of democratic politics.  On the other hand, as Tocqueville pointed out, “The habit of inattention ought to be considered the greatest vice of the democratic mind” (DA II 3.15, tr. Mansfield/Winthrop).  I worry that Nussbaum’s manifesto both expresses and promotes the prevailing characteristics of our time, instead of helping to counteract them.


- Ryan Balot

Monday, June 20, 2011

3. Educating Citizens: The Moral (and Anti-Moral) Emotions

Hello,

Thanks to Alisa, Amit, Lisa, and Peyton for initiating this discussion and for the invitation to be part of it. Now that we are entering week three, the burden of leading things off is much lighter, but it may be replaced by an expectation that subsequent commentators will distinguish themselves from their predecessors. In this regard, I'm afraid, my responses are bound to disappoint. My reading of Not for Profit echoes and amplifies comments offered by John and Eric over the last two weeks. Like them, I am part of the choir that shares Nussbaum's sense of urgency about the vulnerability of humanities education, and like them, I approached Not for Profit as someone who admires and has learned enormously from Nussbaum's work. For reasons similar to some of those already offered, I am puzzled about why she pursues this line of thinking to make her case. The this, in the case of chapter 3, is Nussbaum's turn to psychology to undergird an argument for democratic education. Where John's and Eric's posts address a kind of flatness that in the account of the humanities on offer in the book (where's the buzz?), I want to think a bit about what chapter 3 does and doesn't tell us about democracy. Let me sketch some of the main points of the argument and then register two worries about its implications.

"Educating Citizens" focuses on the internal dynamics that drive antidemocratic behavior and advances possible educational cures. How, Nussbaum asks, can we conceive an approach to education that will mitigate human desires to dominate and to marginalize and that will inculcate in everyone a heightened sense of compassion and a capacity to take responsibility both within and beyond national borders? By way of reply, she looks to the "psychology of human development" (30) to find the childhood roots of antidemocratic behavior. And she traces human beings' tendency to stigmatize others to feelings of disgust and shame. The sense of helplessness we all experience may produce a sense of empathy for other, vulnerable creatures; but, untrained, it can lead us to stigmatize others. Further, there are situational factors that exacerbate our bad behavior: our tendency to obey authority and our susceptibility to abusing others when we are in positions of dominance. Enlarging children's imaginative capacities and cultivating their skills as both compassionate beings and critical thinkers, Nussbaum argues, is crucial to enabling them to negotiate feelings of weakness rather than projecting them onto others and thus to salvaging democratic possibility in a profit-driven world.

My first worry is that Nussbaum presents a view of democratic education without explicitly acknowledging the paradoxical character of such an effort. When she asks readers to contemplate "the problems we face on the way to making students responsible democratic citizens who might think and choose well about a wide range of issues" (27), she does not pause to reckon with the tensions inherent in the idea of "making" democratic citizens. How should we think about the authority "we" exercise in producing subjects capable of thinking for themselves? This is not a particularly original point, and thus it is that much more surprising that Nussbaum's book, and chapter 3 particularly, appears to ignore it. The tension I have in mind here is beautifully (frighteningly) revealed in Louis Menand's June 6 New Yorker article on "why we have college." College, he writes, "takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefts and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste. Independence of mind is tolerated in college, and even honored, but students have to master the accepted ways of doing things before they are permitted to deviate. Ideally, we want everyone to go to college, because college gets everyone on the same page. It's a way of producing a society of like-minded grownups" (74). Even if Menand's claim is facetious, if it's an overstatement, or if it's simply wrong, at the very least, it raises an uncomfortable question: how do we negotiate the dilemma of teaching students to think for themselves but do so in ways that are compatible with democratic ends?

Not to address this question is troubling in two ways. Insofar as it offers an un-tragic reading of the project of democratic education, it evades dilemmas of collective life about which Nussbaum has written so powerfully and which might provide a more robust answer to the question of "why democracy needs the humanities." Beyond this, the unselfconscious advocacy of a kind of social engineering may offer volatile fuel to the fires stoked by conservatives, who fear that colleges have become breeding grounds for "politically correct" thinking. For example, even though I aspire to "teach real and true things about other groups" (45), especially stigmatized groups, I fear that this formulation is both too bland and too inflammatory to convey the dilemmas such an aspiration engenders. Where the book offers maxims about democratic education, I longed to see Nussbaum work through an example—not merely an illustration—that would reveal the knottiness of the problems she asks us to confront and maybe offer a glimmer of alternative possibilities.

The second worry is that concentrating on the inner lives of individuals obscures historical and structural obstacles to democratic life. "We must acknowledge, sadly, that all human societies have created out-groups who are stigmatized as either shameful or disgusting, and usually both" (34-35), Nussbaum observes. Whether or not this is a universal quality of human being, the air of inevitability is deeply troubling and the suggestion that there is a psychological, perhaps evolutionary, explanation for undemocratic relations of power may have the inadvertent effect of letting everyone, especially the relatively powerful, off the hook. Does it, for example, enable American citizens to reckon with the causes and severity of racial inequality in health, wealth, education, political representation, safety, incarceration, and a wide range of other indicators of well-being? How should her recommendations be applied in the context of segregated schools? Here, I think, Nussbaum's appeal to psychology may work against the humane, egalitarian results she seeks. For instance, if we want to understand and challenge the gap in racial attitudes about the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the relative lack of compassion expressed by white citizens, then we may find rich resources in the humanities. But we may be stymied by comments like the following: "the tendency to segment the world into the known and the unknown probably lies very deep in our evolutionary heritage" (38). This concern is not limited to Not for Profit; instead it reflects a nagging sense that worthy and even inspiring calls for all of us to attend to the sources of our emotional responses and to broaden our sympathies can efface the injustices built into our everyday lives and the politics those injustices might engender. Despite our good intentions, we might be the descendants of the "bankers' daughters" of Richard Wright's nightmares, who "could read and weep and feel good about" the stories of others' suffering.

My point isn't simply that Nussbaum has not made her case in the way that I hoped she would make it. Her larger body of work testifies to the many possible avenues opened up for us by the literary, artistic, and philosophical traditions through which we struggle to make sense of our world. What I had hoped for, in the end, was a book that made the humanities come alive and rendered more fully the texture of democratic life. Where chapter 3 of Not for Profit concludes with a list of bullet points that suggest "what schools can and should do to produce citizens in and for a healthy democracy" (45), I thought wistfully about another closing, the final line of her chapter on Antigone, published 25 years ago. There Nussbaum explores, without preaching, what makes the play tragic, moving, democratic. And when she reads the Chorus' ode to Dionysus, she shows why democracy needs the humanities: "[The Chorus] suggest[s] that the spectacle of this tragedy is itself an orderly mystery, ambitiously yielding, healing without cure, whose very harmony (as we respond in common) is not simplicity but the tension of distinct and separate beauties" (The Fragility of Goodness, 82).

Monday, June 13, 2011

Chapter 2: Education for Profit, Education for Democracy

Hi everyone!

First of all, thanks to Alisa, Amit, Lisa and Peyton for inviting me to join this conversation, and to John especially for setting a high bar with the first post – and for not shying away from his snarky side. I’m a big fan of Martha Nussbaum and her work, but I’m not a big fan of this book for many of the same reasons that John laid out in his comments on chapter 1.

I’ve been asked to comment on chapter 2, “Education for Profit, Education for Democracy.” This chapter, like the one that follows it, fits kind of awkwardly into the overall structure of the book. In chapter 1 Nussbaum lays out the claim that the humanities are in crisis and names three abilities that she says are cultivated by a humanistic education and essential to a healthy democracy: “the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and…the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.” (p. 7) These become the focus of chapters 4, 5 and 6, respectively.

Chapters 2 and 3 draw on Nussbaum’s recent work on the “capabilities approach” in developmental economics – e.g. in Women and Human Development and the recently published Creating Capabilities – and on the role of the emotions in cognitive and developmental psychology – e.g. in Upheavals of Thought and Hiding from Humanity. The idea is that before we show how the humanities can help to create a healthy democracy, we have to know what a healthy democracy would look like (pp. 14, 27-8), but the arguments that she offers are only loosely connected to that theme, and the whole sequence feels like a bit of a detour.

Chapter 2 centers around the contrast between the “growth” and “human development” paradigms in development economics. This is a little strange, since Not for Profit is about the state of education in the United States, Europe, and India, and the development literature really only speaks to the latter case. Nussbaum argues, drawing on the work of Amartya Sen, that GDP growth is an inadequate measure of social progress, and that we therefore have reason to favor humanistic over growth-oriented or business-friendly educational policies. This is also a little strange, since she emphasizes at several points elsewhere in the book (e.g. pp. 10, 52-3, 112) that a humanistic education is essential for economic growth as well as for democracy, and that the more astute partisans of growth realize this (maybe the book should have been called Not Only for Profit). She goes on to make a kind of social justice argument, suggesting that “moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore inequality,” and that “art is a great enemy of that obtuseness.” (p. 23) But even if we believe that a humanistic education makes one less likely to engage in economic exploitation (I don’t), this strikes me as a pretty slender reed on which to rest a defense of the humanities.

Rather than focus on this line of argument, I’d like to use the rest of this post to raise some broader questions about the nature of the defense of the humanities that’s offered here.

What surprised me most about this book is how little Nussbaum has to say about the experience of being moved by literature, art, music, philosophy, etc. We all care about the humanities, I take it, because we’ve all had, and learned to crave, that buzzy, exhilarated feeling that you get when something is beautifully expressed, or when some new insight changes the way you look at the world. I don’t think we can really make a case for studying the humanities – if by that term we mean the traditional elements of a “liberal” education – unless we put this feeling at center stage. I imagine, for example, though I don't know from firsthand experience, that there’s plenty of critical inquiry, global thinking and empathetic role-taking going on in business or law school when the students work through the latest cases. In some ways this is probably a more efficient way of imparting these skills than a traditional liberal education, since the material is less recondite and the stated aim is to figure out how to serve the interests of customers or clients rather than, say, understanding why philosophers should be kings. But I take it that Nussbaum, like most of us, would want to say that something important is missing from such an education.

So what can we say about buzzy exhilaration (for lack of a better term) from a democratic standpoint? It’s definitely an elevating feeling, if only because, like most rewarding experiences, it offers us a chance to forget about ourselves for a while. But I’m not convinced that it’s a morally elevating feeling, let alone that it tends to lead to good citizenship. In some ways it’s an obviously selfish feeling – one for the sake of which we’re often tempted to neglect our other duties, civic or otherwise. So I’m less inclined than Nussbaum is to defend a humanistic education on instrumental grounds, and more inclined simply to treat it as one of the things that makes life worth living – and to argue that we have an obligation as democrats to make it available to as many people as possible.

The problem with this way of framing the issue, of course, is that a lot of people don’t seem to be very interested in having such an education made available to them. This fact, and this whole way of talking – an enlightened “we” making something available to a benighted “they” – helps to explain the persistent view that the humanities are an “elitist” enterprise whose democratic credentials are therefore suspect. That’s an easy view to dismiss for those of us who don’t come from especially privileged backgrounds and who were brought to love the humanities – sometimes despite our initial resistance – by inspiring and dedicated mentors. But we should keep in mind that however we came to it, a conspicuous love of the humanities is just as surely a marker of status as any other kind of conspicuous consumption.

This brings us to another odd feature of Nussbaum’s book: the fact that it’s addressed mostly to elites – politicians, business leaders, educational administrators, etc. – rather than to the actual “consumers” of education; namely students and (indirectly) their parents. I think that this focus on the supply rather than the demand side of the equation gets things exactly backwards. In my experience it isn’t myopic administrators or sinister business interests who are imposing a “growth-oriented” agenda on students; the situation is nearer the reverse, as students – especially working class students, whose presence in college is one of the great democratic victories of the American educational system – demand a more “practical” curriculum. If we’re going to “save” the humanities (assuming that they really need saving), then that’s where the saving will have to be done.

This brings us back, finally, to the question of the relationship between the humanities and economic development. Aristotle, about whom Nussbaum knows a thing or two, says that a liberal education – the kind of education that’s suitable for a free person – presupposes the existence of leisure (scholÄ“, the root of the English scholar), and is fundamentally concerned with the question of how to use one’s leisure well. Needless to say leisure time tends to vary directly with prosperity, and so there’s reason to think not only that a liberal education is a necessary condition for prosperity, but also that a certain level of prosperity is a necessary condition for an appreciation of a liberal education.

Necessary, but not sufficient. I remember teaching this part of Aristotle years ago during my first (not very successful) attempt at leading a large lecture class. I ended the lecture with the following thought experiment:

“Imagine that there was nothing in the world that you had to do: that you didn’t have to worry about making money, or getting good grades, or getting married or raising kids, or pleasing your parents, or whatever it is that you have to do, or think you have to do, in your life right now. Imagine that you were perfectly free in that sense, perfectly free from necessities. What would you do? Many of us wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves if we didn’t have some external goal, like money or power or status or even just trying to please other people, to get us out of bed in the morning. But some of us, Aristotle thinks, would have the wisdom to use an opportunity like that to make something out of ourselves: to cultivate our higher faculties, to enjoy the finer things that life has to offer, and to make and do things that are worthy of admiration. That’s the test for Aristotle of whether a person is liberally educated or not; whether they would be able to make good use of their freedom if they had it. It’s not necessarily up to us to decide whether an opportunity like that will ever come our way; that’s largely a matter of fortune, as Aristotle says. But it is up to us to decide what we would do with the opportunity if we had it.”

This was a bright spot in an otherwise spotty semester of teaching: I could see the students’ faces relax and brighten as I was speaking, and when the lecture ended there was that buzz in the room that you always like to hear after a class. The lesson that I took from that experience was that teaching students to value a liberal education isn’t necessarily a matter of teaching them to be less selfish and more other-directed than they are; most of them have plenty of worries and responsibilities as it is. In some ways the challenge is to teach them to be more selfish – to want things out of life that they didn’t realize they wanted, or could want. If we want to make the cultivation of the humanities one of the aims of our democracy – and please notice I’m phrasing this as a conditional – then I think that’s the tack we should take.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve tried to write down my thoughts on this subject, and I’m sure that I’ll change my mind about some of them as you all respond. But the nice thing about blogging is that it gives us a chance to be wrong in real time instead of being wrong in slow motion, which is the usual fate of academic writing. So … have at it!