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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chpt. 4 - Socratic Pedagogy

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



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


stefan said...

I would echo Ryan's concern (in his excellent critique) that Nussbaum's instrumental defense of the humanities is a fraught one that moves us unwittingly toward a justification of philosopher-kings, and for a longer treatment of this issue I would suggest Elizabeth Spelman's wonderful chapter "On the Distribution of Moral Badges" in the Kiss/Euben volume on moral education.

I wonder though if we move too quickly away from the instrumentalist line of reasoning, and rush toward the intrinsic, because we (humanities academics as a whole) are missing something. That is, it's fine to say that reading Cervantes, Plato, or Baudelaire is intrinsically valuable (and I agree), but it's another thing to say that there is intrinsic value in taxpayers, parents and students paying up to $50000/year in order for me to spend a large chunk of my time reading and then publishing on Plato et al. I think we (and Nussbaum) are skipping over this important question, which stems from the transformation of the American college into the German-model research university and the subsequent growth of the humanities research industry. I think Nussbaum's instrumentalist defense of the humanities is more defensible than most of the commenters, but she too doesn't really address this (at least that I've read so far) since she focuses on teaching rather than research. As we all know, however, it's research that runs the show, not teaching (though there are exceptions to this rule, I know).

The upshot for me is a basic choice: either we embrace something like Nussbaum's teaching-based defense of the humanities (either intrinsic or instrumental) and shift our profession more towards actually training and valuing teaching, or, if we keep things more or less the same, we need a convincing (public, instrumentalist) defense of humanities research. I'm not sure the latter is readily available, which is why I think MN says so little about it.

Stefan Dolgert
University of Connecticut

abahachi said...

Would it be unreasonable to suggest that, in all hitherto-existing political systems, there is always a tension, or at the very least the potential for tension, between free intellectual enquiry and the needs and/or desires of society as a whole? This isn't confined to philosophy or the humanities; after all, at least research into Plato is vastly cheaper to fund than Large Hadron Collidors or the like, which may seem equally pointless to the mass of the population, even with a couple of centuries' inherited prestige for Science. All disciplines face the need to justify their existence and come up with more-or-less convincing responses to crude instrumentalist enquries; in any given society, some disciplines find this easier than others

Where the humanities might stand out, I suppose, is that they may appear actively dangerous to society's interests, whereas particle physics research just runs the risk of seeming to be a waste of money but basically harmless. We may not, as Ryan notes, want to weaken the arguments for democracy and the humanities by pointing out potential conflicts, but others are going to point them out anyway and it doesn't do our case much good if we seem to be trying to pretend they don't exist. The Socrates example raises the question of whether society actually wants gadflies or can ever be persuaded of their utility. Mention of Thucydides brings to mind the fact that his new critical-historical understanding is turned in part against the democracy, undermining its cherished foundation myths (the Harmodius and Aristogeiton story) and revealing some fundamental failures in its ability to reach decisions that actually benefit the city.

At best, the humanities can seem an impediment to decisive action, constantly insisting that it's all much more complicated than everyone thinks. At worst, they seem to direct their critical eye against the foundations of society itself.

Neville Morley
University of Bristol

Claire said...

I’d like to thank Ryan and the three others for your posts, which say what I have been thinking although I could never have expressed these thoughts as eloquently as the four of you have. I have also learned a great deal from the comments and so I wish to thank Lisa and Peyton Wofford for organizing this online reading group.
With regard to this chapter, I again turn to my puzzlement regarding Nussbaum’s previous use of Rousseau. The kind of humanistic education that Nussbaum promotes is not only not going to deliver the moral education she both wants but it also runs the risk of undermining those things. She references Emile, but the reason Rousseau needs Emile is precisely because he needs to cultivate a man who will be immune the corrupting forces of reason epitomized by philosophy. That is, reason at an early age is precisely the problem—Child Centered for Rousseau would not mean the Philosophy for Children program (and again a full disclosure here, I have a Masters degree from that program). I winced when I saw her reference to it in this chapter. Philosophical reasoning, for Rousseau, runs the risk of creating sophists and would undermine the educational project that is carefully choreographed to mitigate this potential. It is not only that Rousseau thought children incapable of reason at an early age; he thought they were not morally ready for this kind of reasoning. Without digressing too much, Rousseau’s heart was in the right place but the educational project he outlines to deliver this safeguard hopelessly fails.

The humanities education, critical reasoning, etc, that Nussbaum promotes runs the risk of not only not creating people who are concerned about others but whose greed and selfishness backed by reason to justify those actions.

Ryan notes the unfortunate irony in Nussbaum’s position that if it is the case that a humanities education is superior for this, than those of us with PhD’s in the humanities are super superior, leading to the philosopher king, which is decidedly not democratic. And yet, this irony is then unfortunately betrayed by the fact that many with PhD’s in the humanities are not morally superior and often act in ways that realize Rousseau’s worst fears.

Amit Ron said...
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