Hi APT VRGers!
While attempting to initiate general discussion on Martha Nussbaum’s book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, I will also try to confine my bloggy remarks to her proem, “The Silent Crisis.”
My reaction on first pass: I agree with pretty much everything Martha Nussbaum is saying. She’s preaching to the academic-robed choir in which I’m a full-throated member. Most days these days I share her alarmist mood regarding cutbacks in the humanities and the liberal arts overall. Mind you, I have colleagues near and dear to me who counsel against such despair and outrage. They remind me that such chickenlittlelike crisis-rhetoric often reveals a false nostalgia that serves as a cover for forms of privilege and elitism that are now being subjected to new and evolving economies of digitized democratization, which they welcome. Print culture, and therewith the humanities, surely won’t perish from the earth; reading practices will be altered and perhaps even accelerated, but not eliminated. No need to cling to a bound-book fetish. Yes, certain well-placed scribes and institutional gatekeepers, who have purported to hold a quaint authority over various disciplinary practices (such as reading novels or doing philosophy), may find themselves downsized and out of a job. But let’s not pretend that these eggheads were the main catalysts for worldwide creativity, or for inter-personal empathy, or even for thoughtfulness as such, or that their demise necessarily augurs a dreary future populated entirely by soulless, if gainfully employed, bots.
No, I reject those upbeat spins, accommodations, and rationalizations and, as already mentioned, share Nussbaum’s dire view that “We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance.” Two quick quibbles: first, the crisis isn’t really silent, at least not in my circles, not now. (I suspect the book seemed more like a breakout book during the Bush-Spellings era and its early aftermath.) Second, whereas the humanities and liberal arts are on a steep decline in this country, elsewhere we are seeing an uptick of interest in U.S.-style liberal arts programs and colleges, particularly in certain countries that heretofore have specialized in STEM subjects and technical education. By my count, eighteen liberal arts colleges, drawing mainly upon the U.S. SLAC model, have been founded outside the U.S. in the last twelve years, and numerous other liberal arts programs and collaborations have also been initiated in foreign universities in recent periods (many residing in decidedly un-democratic countries). Yet global capitalism will probably crush eventually these wistful experiments as well, so they shouldn't be viewed as detracting much from Nussbaum’s broadside.
To sum up thus far: I am mighty glad that Nussbaum decided to write a “manifesto” and “call to arms” on this matter. I heartily endorse her sweeping contention that the profit motive is largely corrosive as applied to educational pursuits. She rocks. She’s an academic star who is trying to engage a larger public, who abides by the courage of her convictions, who is putting her non-Marxist credentials on the line against the oligarchs. I admire that as Rome burns, she isn’t fiddling. What’s the problem then, Snark-boy Seery, you might be asking? Come clean, do tell. Well, I don’t want to be pedantic and captious (that’s true, seriously). Remember that I’m on her side. The book seems foremost directed toward policy makers and movers and shakers, not to me, as a small-time classroom teacher, so I’m inclined to withhold critical comment. But I must if I must say: the book, too often, bores me. I read certain passages, they sound like buzzwordy boilerplate, they sound like declaimed mini-lectures, they sound like cut-and-paste clip-jobs from longer Nussbaum tomes, they sound like academic blah blah blah (with citations), and my eyes gloss over. I want to be moved. I want to be inflamed. I want to be inspired. I want others to be inspired. I don’t think this book will do the trick. That saddens me. Backfiring, it threatens to compound, rather than ameliorate, the problem of the humanities. When one of our greatest exemplars of the humanities writes a manifesto on behalf of the humanities, it should soar and sing and prick and prod. It should make you clap, laugh, cry, tap your toe, or pound your fist. This one doesn’t (at least not in this opening chapter).
It’s too preachy. Its form of presentation is didactic, not Socratic, even as it explicitly celebrates Socratic interactions. Hence its do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do subtext undercuts its overt claims. A manifesto on behalf of the humanities should convey something—quite a bit—of the excitement, the passion, the risk, the fun, the pleasures, the profundities, the trials, the work, the puzzlement, the self-questioning that altogether make so many of us devoted to such intensive labors of learning. Nussbaum here, I’m afraid, comes across as a fancy pants know-it-all—which I suspect could have the unintended effect of further isolating snooty academics from a larger public. Her authorial voice (belying what I take to be her intentions) strikes me as autocratic rather than democratic, more hectoring than collaborative. (And I realize there are multiple ways of inscribing and enacting democratic overtures. In transactional Hollywood, you’ve got about 30 seconds to make your pitch. Don’t drone on. Get to the point. Convey complexity quickly. Convey heart. Be real. Show, don’t tell. Don’t bullshit. Know your audience.)
After a few head scratches, I found myself recoiling at such lines as “The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance” (p. 2) or that a humanities-educated person approaches problems as a “citizen of the world” (p. 7). To my ear, such language sounds so exalted, so high-minded, so earnest, and so pretentious. I would never get away with that missionary language in a small seminar of sly undergraduates (they would mock: what’s the difference between a world citizen and an intergalactic one?). The language is also horribly reductive: the purposes of liberal arts education exceed, or are distinct from, or are sometimes averse to, those of democratic enculturation. A good person is not the same as a good citizen, Aristotle told us. A good geology major is not the same as a good citizen. The strategic and substantive problem here is that while Nussbaum wants to defend not-for-profit education against profit-seeking corporatist and capitalist enterprise, she repairs to the über-instrumentalist language of democracy-building as a way of justifying outwardly the inward activities of academe. Why not explain instead that the marketplace of ideas must be in good part sheltered from the marketplace of goods and services? Forget that patronizing, puffed-up stuff about “faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships” (p. 6). It strains credulity, and seems like grandstanding, to say that democracies, in principle or in fact, depend for their very survival upon heady pursuits of truth, beauty, virtue, and knowledge as such. Democracy doesn’t need the humanities (drop that arrogant PR campaign), but the humanities today do apparently need more democratic appeal and support.
Those cranky objections notwithstanding, I’d like the take-home to be: We should all follow Nussbaum’s agitated example, stepping out of the cubicle and into the non-proverbial public square, in order to invite others to understand better, nay to join us in pursuing, the joys and rigors of lifelong learning. (Which means, we need to start putting ourselves in the awkwardly self-serving position of singing our own praises, because university administrators and trustees cannot be trusted to do their jobs in that respect.)
Finally, I invite you to chronicle here various cutbacks, encroachments and indignities regarding the humanities (however you draw the ambit of that term), as well as happier countervailing tales, at your home institution or other places. Please e-expatiate below!