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 (scholē, 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!