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).