Monday, June 6, 2011

Chpt. 1: The Silent Crisis

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!
John Seery


Lisa Ellis said...

Wow, John, already you are at the heart of what's wrong with the book: no spark, just dreary instrumentalism (just because it's not STEM instrumentalism doesn't mean it's not instrumentalism). I think Nussbaum missed a chance to make a better instrumentalist case, by the way, along with Dewey and Berube and Latour, about what a possible modern cosmopolitan fallibilist democratic ethos looks like. But I agree that humanistic thinking cannot commit to serve any master, not even the cause of democratic citizenship...I also think that there is an unpleasant whiff of nostalgia, mixed with elitism, a sort of longing for the faux-egalitarianism of an earlier time that reminds me uncomfortably of Putnam's praise of the 50s.

Amit Ron said...

John, Lisa, I read Nussbaum in a different way. Democracy does not need the humanities in an instrumental way. It is not a PR campaign! Rather, the very idea of non-instrumental reason presupposes a sphere for an exchange of reasons about what constitutes the good life. For Nussbaum (if I understand correctly), the humanities (and democracies) are not about "truth, beauty, virtue, and knowledge as such" but about finding ways to live together a meaningful life (or to put it in a different way, perhaps the way we should understand the notions of truth, virtue, and knowledge should not be "as such"). I think that the term "democracy building" is not Nussbaum's own term. Building requires instrumental reason. But democracy (for Nussbuam) is not a building, it is a process.

James Bourke said...

I want to complicate the discussion of instrumentalism and strategy a bit by asking how Nussbaum’s argument might relate to our (i.e. political theorists’) purposes. In general, I agree that the crisis for the liberal arts model is real, and that in light of this Nussbaum’s issuing a manifesto seems to me appropriate (though I think John is right that it’s not the most fiery call to arms we might imagine).

I also have little objection, either substantive or strategic, to the claim that humanities education is essential to democracy (even if understood instrumentally—it seems to me a strategic mistake to rely solely on the claim that the humanities offer something “good in itself”). While John may be right that the rhetoric of “survival” is overblown (democratic regimes aren’t likely to collapse because all the citizens are bots), there seems to me to be a very strong argument that without the skills imparted by humanistic education, “actually existing” democracy will fall further away from the normative ideal we ought to strive toward.

Despite all these points of agreement, though, I have some strategic reservations about Nussbaum’s argument as a defense of political theory. This largely has to do with Nussbaum’s focus on “the humanities” in her rhetoric. This is quite appropriate for the crisis facing the liberal arts, but in political theory we also face a smaller, local crisis. We are challenged to defend our scholarship as belonging in a social science discipline, and to make this case to colleagues who often have inhospitable conceptions of what a social science ought to be. No doubt this problem has plagued the discipline for decades, but it seems to me that it has been heating up in the wake of the Penn State curriculum changes. My concern is that adopting Nussbaum’s defense of the humanities weakens our case to be part of political science. It seems to me that an empiricist colleague could agree with every bit of Nussbaum’s argument and still remain skeptical about political theory—how ought we to respond to the counter, “that’s all well and good, but since you’ve couched your importance in the mission of the humanities, why not take your activities to some other department?”

My point is just to raise this as a question to encourage conversation about what relationship we ought to take with respect to Nussbaum’s argument (for I’m assuming that one of the purposes of this group is to discuss Nussbaum in relationship to political theory). How ought political theorists to position themselves with respect to a defense of the humanities, given our institutional and substantive ties to the social sciences?

Peyton Wofford said...

Thank you, John, for a great first post!

I’m in the middle of dissertation research on Nussbaum’s use of Aristotle, and, as these things often do, her defense of the humanities ties right into her previous work. Believe it or not, the first sentence of chapter one immediately brought this into sharp focus.

Nussbaum’s first sentence reads, “We are the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance.”

The role/use of the humanities in political and economic life varies. As such, the impact of the marginalization of the humanities on different countries may be less uniform than admitted here. Even if Nussbaum (p. 9) is only discussing “a global trend”, the acknowledgement of the differences across borders is worth noting. Mulgan (2000) presents a cross-country comparison of the importance of undergraduate education to success (especially financial success) and the role of humanities in political debate. Mulgan sums up his comparison of the US with Australia and New Zealand in this description.

“The result, allowing for some exaggeration, is that in the United States it would be hard to find, say, a leading lawyer or journalist who had not come across Pericles’ funeral speech or Plato’ s Republic in his or her education; in the antipodes, it would be hard to find one who had. These differing levels of present-day interest cut both ways. On the one hand, the continuing resonance of the Greek texts in modern American political debates gives an urgency and sense of commitment to their academics’ interpretations which do much to enliven academic discussion and can often throw new light on old problems.”

What’s interesting here to me is Mulgan’s (and several others’) larger point has nothing to do with a defense of the humanities, but rather on the popularity of shoving literature, philosophy and such into convenient sound-bites boxes to shore up positions in political debates and the dangerous relationship this practice shares with the scholarly project of interpreting great works. The optimism described by John jumped to mind after re-reading Mulgan’s claim about the importance of the humanities in US education (however Cliff/Spark Notes based the knowledge may be). Could it be that the crisis is less grave or that various countries should receive a different ranking on the gravity scale (if you will)? Could it be an issue less about the disappearance of the humanities and more about their use and interpretation?

I am inclined to scream, No! Of course, the crisis is very real and very serious. Mulgan’s example, however, provides an interesting counter-argument.

Wingenbach said...

I’ve much to say about Nussbaum’s book, most of it critical. Unless I pace myself I’ll have nothing left for my official comments by the time we get to chapter six. My reaction paralleled John’s and Lisa’s, with perhaps a bit more anger than their disappointment. I was eager to read a thoughtful, passionate defense of the humanities, something we in higher education sorely need to articulate. I was especially eager to read a defense aimed toward a general audience, as it is parents, prospective students, legislators, donors, and the public we need to convince of the humanities’ value. Nussbaum’s tiresome text offered little I found compelling, and almost nothing that might be valuable in the more important public argument about the humanities; simply rehearsing tired clichés, offering isolated anecdotes, and asserting humanities education as the core of democratic citizenship appeals only to the already converted. I’ve also a host of objections to her assumptions about the purposes and character democracy, about the actual impact of humanities education, and about the realities of the current and future landscape of higher education.

For now I’ll limit my comment to one small point. I think Nussbaum’s argument sloppily conflates a false nostalgia for a humanistic education that never existed amongst any but the most elite democratic citizens with an essential and important but underdeveloped normative argument that such an education is necessary to a future democratic citizenry. The implicit power of her argument invokes the narrative of decline: once we had democratic citizens, whose vibrancy and engagement were produced by their immersion in the great works of humanity, but now we are losing our democracy as we replace humanities education with market oriented disciplines. Hence the crisis. But was it ever thus, even a little bit? How could it have been so, when only 6% of Americans held a bachelor’s degree in 1950, the last period it is safe to assume was relatively uncorrupted by the student demands for “relevance”? In 1960 the number was only slightly higher at 7.7%. It wasn’t until 1990 that the number reached 20.3%.* Even assuming all these students experienced a meaningful liberal arts curriculum, only a minuscule portion of citizens, it would seem, were even remotely prepared for “democratic citizenship” at any point in our past. I’d wager the portion of the population that receives a liberal arts education today mirrors the elite portion of 50 years ago. If education in the humanities is the condition for healthy democracy, then our democracy has always been ill, unless rule by educated elites suffices for democratic society (admittedly, the numbers of liberally educated elites in the U.S. are similar to the number of full citizens in democratic Athens, so perhaps such a definition does suffice?).

Conversely, a normative argument claiming we’ve never had the conditions for meaningful democratic citizenship because the humanities are essential to the cultivation of the necessary traits for participation, and that we should work to expand and deepen access to such education in a way that has never before existed, would be an argument worth development. Instead of shrinking education in the arts and humanities, or even returning to past levels of emphasis, we need to expand liberal education as never before. But such an argument lends itself poorly to the trope of crisis and decline. In the current climate it might even sound utopian or naïve. The power of nostalgiac appeal works much more effectively, at least with the real audience for this book, fellow liberally educated elites. What I’d love to hear over the course of the summer are some ideas for how we might defend such a normative vision, and how we might convince skeptics that our arguments are sound.

*This data is available in a great map at

dianaj said...

How right you are, Mr. Bourke. The conversation is already dense with worthy criticism and comment on Nussbaum’s thesis, however, as political theorists are we not to take issue with that greater challenge, i.e., the “smaller, local crisis” in which we must defend our scholarship against fellow colleagues’ “inhospitable conceptions?” I believe your point is well-taken about the over-arching purpose of the conversation—that a defense of the humanities must include not so much the Nussbaum proposal (as a condition necessary for a thriving democracy) but how in this context we position ourselves indeed as valuable contributors to the discussion of democratic theory. Perhaps as you suggest, we may likely “weaken our case” for theoretical inquiry as substantive to political science and as is typical, raise that familiar empiricist skepticism if our perspective is somewhat blurred by Nussbaum’s rhetorical approach. Indeed, the recurring problem that “has plagued the discipline for decades” well deserves our attention and while we are at it, we can only further extend support to the author’s case for humanities education.

John said...

Wow--this blog discussion is far more civil than those to which I'm accustomed. Thanks everyone! I intend to respond more in the days ahead. But tonight, I'm wishing that I had first read Peter Brooks' recent article in the NYRB on higher education books before writing my blog post. He reviews Nussbaum's book as an exception among the current crop of books about the "crisis" of higher education, most of which are pretty nasty about professors, tenure, student learning, and, well, academic in general. Had I read this paragraph beforehand, I think I would have qualified my criticism and/or bolstered my praise of her efforts: "One turns with some relief to Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit, and her impassioned (if somewhat preachy) argument in favor of study of the humanities. She suggests, contra the critics, that “the liberal arts portion of college and university education in the United States now supports democratic citizenship better than it did fifty years ago.” Her concern is with the diminishing place given to the liberal arts in many institutions: their marginalization by technocratic and business-oriented demands.6 Her book pursues a comparison between the US and India, and the progressive reforms of John Dewey and of Rabindranath Tagore, which seem to have been largely lost in India’s drive to achieve pride of place in the new global economies. Nussbaum takes her position firmly in the Socratic tradition of inquiry, and of teaching, and she points out that this works best in small groups, with live questions and answers. Nussbaum calls on a great tradition of educational reformers—Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebl, Horace Mann, Dewey—to argue for the place of creative play and imaginative sympathy in education. She wants dreamers to further the American dream—something that is beyond the imagination of most of the books under review." Bottom line, big picture: Nussbaum is an ally, not the opposition.

James Bourke said...

I think Ed Wingenbach raises some important and compelling objections to Nussbaum’s narrative of crisis and decline—although this is complicated by a nuance John highlights from the Brooks piece in the NYRB, i.e. that Nussbaum thinks the role of the humanities vis-à-vis democracy has improved, but the place of the humanities vis-à-vis the university is in decline. I wonder then if it makes sense, in light of Ed and John’s points, to distinguish between two possible modes or loci of crisis. On the one hand, there is the possibility of crisis within the university, marked by the decline of the liberal arts as a respected and supported area of study, and on the other hand, there is the possibility of crisis for democracy, marked by a decline in citizens’ capacities and the correlative vibrancy of democratic discourse and accountability. As Ed points out, Nussbaum doesn’t carefully separate these two possible modes of crisis from one another, and the latter mode, crisis for democracy, doesn’t make sense because it posits an original healthy state that never really existed.

But I think Nussbaum may have a stronger case about the first kind of crisis—the respectability of the liberal arts is in decline. And it may make sense to say that the reason we should worry about this decline is that the prospects for democracy are made worse because of it; that is, the backward-looking claim about the university could be coherently coupled with a forward-looking claim about democratic ideals. Moreover, I don’t think it’s right to see in Nussbaum’s defense of the liberal arts a naïve nostalgia for an inegalitarian and unjust moment in the American academy. She’s not Allan Bloom, and in Cultivating Humanity she defends the study of non-Western cultures as essential the very intellectual and civic virtues in question here. Further, I recall reading somewhere in her vast corpus (and I can’t for the life of me recall where—I’d appreciate some help here if someone recognizes the anecdote) a brief account of some of the injustices she faced as a woman in graduate school at Harvard in the early 60s—she couldn’t use the same libraries or dining facilities as her male “colleagues,” among other things. I’m thus suspicious of the claim that Nussbaum wants us to return to some WASP elite golden age in higher education.

One last point—it seems to me that the forward-looking, normative argument about the importance of the humanities to realizing democracy that Ed calls us toward might have implications well beyond the context of higher education that we’ve been discussing. If this understanding of civic education is right, as I believe it is, then what are its implications for primary and secondary education? Why should we limit the scope of humanities-centered reform to the university, which after all remains the province of a minority of citizens? Alongside the debates about higher education highlighted by the Brooks piece, we’re also in the midst of fierce debates about K-12, with advocates of privatization, de-unionization, and an increased focus on precisely the kinds of economic preparations Nussbaum warns about gaining the upper hand. It seems to me that here, too, arguments need to be made that education is not just for work but also for citizenship, and that this implies a humanistic core that cultivates intellectual virtues.

John said...

Great stuff. Another way of formulating Ed's nostalgia/normative (backward-forward) distinction might be Louis Menand's "model 1" versus "model 2" distinction in his recent New Yorker piece ( College model number one was an elitist, screening approach (mostly of yore). Model 2 was a democratic access model. The new model three is a jobs training model. Nussbaum, it seems to me, would straddle 2 and 3, a view that the humanities and liberal education can shape and improve (not just extend to) democratic citizens. --As for a defense of political theory against skeptical political science colleagues: I can understand the worry that a humanities-heavy justification of political theory, even one tending toward democratic and civic implications, could play into the hands of disciplinary naysayers. I don't have a good response off the top of my head. I follow those internecine debates, of course, but where I happen to teach, such in-fighting happily just doesn't manifest (I suspect the strong liberal arts ethos helps dissipate those occupational tensions). The "crisis" of which Nussbaum writes, I should think, isn't confined, however, to the humanities. Rather, the humanities is/are the canary in the coal mine--and so anti-theory political scientists need to take heed of these overall attacks on the academy. In 1997 the management guru Peter Drucker predicted that in 30 years, libraries housed in buildings would be rendered obsolete; and residential college education, housed in buildings, would also go by the wayside--both due to digitization. Today, some are talking about a higher education bubble much like the housing bubble--a bubble about to burst. Will students and their parents really keep paying $30-40-50K per year for a college degree at Pomona or Stanford or even Berkeley when a pretty damn fine and sufficiently marketable education can be had on-line for a fraction of the cost? We're seeing those trends already. ( Why go to Harvard when you can watch Michael Sandel's Justice course on-line? Is the show in person REALLY worth that much more, and all the effort?) By one metric, the number of liberal arts colleges in the U.S. has declined by 35% in the last twenty years--and liberal arts programs are going belly up elsewhere. But a far larger shake-out might be happening, and sooner and faster than you might think. Good-by Hollywood Video, good-bye Borders Bookstore, good-by You-Name-It local college or university. Somehow I don't think hard-nosed political scientists are going to be immune from these larger forces if only they keep distancing themselves from humanists and theorists. The crisis talk does reflect a real concern, some real trends--it's not just a harking back to the good old days. Also, witness the attacks in Congress on political science research. Under these conditions (which have already changed since the Penn State debacle), do the political scientists really want to insist on methods courses to the exclusion of theory courses? Do their ps courses rate that much higher in the all-important student evaluation statistics than the pt ones? Do their theory-less student majors fare better on the CLA test than theory-schooled ones? Just wondering...

John said...

I just read over my last comment. I meant to say, Nussbaum would straddle Menand's model 1 and 2 (not 2 and 3, as it was written). Sorry for the confusion.

michaele said...
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michaele said...
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John said...

Any gluttons for more punishment out there tonight? I thought I would mention another ominous trend. A few months ago I heard this guy speak: (the son of the late Berkeley political scientist, Aaron Wildavsky--but the son never went to grad school). Anyway, he was pitching this new book of his:
The whole idea is that there is and will be a global market in higher education, with increased competition for brain power--all of the lessons of free trade economics must therefore be applied to "the great brain race." For the U.S. to continue to compete in this new global marketplace, we must reduce "academic protectionism" (read: tenure) so that the best brains can follow the money trail. As well, knowledge won't respect institutional credentials; what counts is how much you know and how well you fare in market terms, not what degrees you have or chairs you hold. This guy was in charge for a long time of the U.S. News and World Report college ranking biz; and now he blogs for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Expect to hear more of this "global trade" approach to reforming (read: dismantling and commodifying) the U.S. higher education system, in much the same way that the rat choicers figured out that vouchers and the notion of school competition could cripple the public school system. The Kauffman Foundation is supporting the guy's efforts.

Farnam Street said...

I'm in the process of reading Laura Penny's excellent book on the same subject "More money than brains". Penny makes a much more compelling case than Nussbaum.

The book is a serious and funny read. Penny's screed is well worth your time.

michaele said...
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michaele said...

Ok - trying to repost:

I am concerned that we (and perhaps Nussbaum as well - I haven't read beyond the first chapter) are conflating a number of different possible problems we could be addressing, and so I got the impression that some of the posts so far are talking past each other. All of these topics are important, but they are different. I want to try to draw some distinctions here.

In talking about the importance of humanities education, we can differentiate between K-12 humanities education, higher education humanities education, or the importance of humanities education in general. The latter could take place within formal education institutions, or it could take place outside of them (as one poster suggested, reminding that Michael Sandel's "Justice" is available online).

In talking about the importance of humanities within the academy, we could talk about the importance of *research* in the humanities, or we could talk about the importance of *teaching* in the humanities, or we could talk about both simultaneously. (This strikes me as very important in university contexts today: if we are reduced to our value as teachers, then it may be increasingly difficult to defend what few tenure track humanities positions persist. A defense of humanistic research, and not just teaching, seems imperative to me.)

We could also be talking about the humanities in the sense of the traditional fields often lumped into the institutionalized category of the humanities, as opposed to the social sciences and the sciences. These might include English, foreign languages & literature, Religion, History, Philosophy, and others - although the boundaries of the humanities can also vary from one institution to the next. Or we could talk about the importance of the humanities understood more broadly, and be talking about something like a mode of inquiry. (I'd really like to hear more about how we might define the humanities, and whether defining it is a worthwhile enterprise). This latter understanding of the humanities would include political theorists in Political Science departments, some of our colleagues in other subfields, social theorists, a handful of economists, as well as faculty who incorporate humanistic approaches into STEM fields.

Finally, there is the question of how the attack on the humanities relates to the attack on higher education in general. Do we need to think about this problem in that larger context, or does thinking about the attack on the humanities as a part of the funding crisis and privatization of universities do harm by obscuring the unique problems facing humanistic scholars in an increasingly neoliberalized academy? If the attack on the humanities is understood as part of a larger phenomenon, the upside might be that we could build alliances with non-humanistic colleagues across our institutions.

My thinking on all of these questions has been influenced in part by Wendy Brown's recent comments on the humanities, political theory, and the privatization of the UC system. I'm thinking here both of the fascinating symposium published in PRQ last year around Tim Kaufman-Osborn's provocative essay on political theory's place in political science, in which Brown participated. (Political Research Quarterly September 2010 63: 680-685) I'm also thinking of her speech delivered at a teach-in at Berkeley about the budget crisis. (

Claire said...

I am posting with trepidation... Full disclosure--this topic frames a central chapter in my current book ms (which will go to press in October).
My questions are more broadly construed but pull from comments already posted. I agree with John that on one hand, Nussbaum is not the enemy here. On the other hand, someone can be a supporter in a way that does damage to the position. It seems that the question about the value of the humanities goes back to different readings of knowledge that are found in Plato and Aristotle—what is the relationship between theory and praxis (or knowledge, wisdom, and action)

It seems to me that the question of the value of the humanities, at least as Nussbaum, frames it, relies on a view that knowledge=wisdom and this will lead to action. I don’t know that I see this and I worry that we are setting the humanities up for a task that it will surely fail.

When we say the humanities—what do we mean? How much does someone need to read? Which books? All of them? Machiavelli and Rousseau? If we are cultivating creative minds, we cannot be sure these minds will be fans of democratic principles. Are we talking about k-12, four years of college, graduate school? I know too many PhD’s in the humanities who are terrible democratic citizens. Did they read the wrong books? Not enough books? Have bad teachers? How can we engage people to see themselves as citizens of the world when they too often do not se themselves as citizens of a university, a town, a state, and a country?

On the other side there is the terrible conflation of the humanities, humanities education, and becoming a “better person,” as John noted above. Even if these folks are incredibly smart at reading Shakespeare or Rousseau, I don’t know that I trust their ethical or political judgment—should they decide finally to exercise either. That is, it is not clear to me that knowledge equals wisdom, much less entailing the courage to act. And I suspect most of us know too many humanities graduates whose behavior is questionable.

So are the humanities (and humanities education) necessary and/or sufficient? What role does discussion play? What about the teacher or a guide? Is it only about reading or is there an agenda attached--

tbs said...

The humanities are or can be reminders of magic in the world (and are thus not really about making us "better" persons (as Nussbaum has argued elsewhere). Alas Weber was right when he identified the quality of the modern world as entzaubert -- demagified. In Science as a Vocation we find: “It [the rational scientific orientation] means that in principle, then, we are not ruled by mysterious, unpredictable forces, but that, on the contrary, we can in principle control everything by means of calculation. That in turn means the disenchantment of the world. Unlike the savage for whom such forces existed, we need no longer have recourse to magic in order to control the spirits or pray to them. Instead, technology and calculation achieve our ends. This is the primary meaning of the process of intellectualization.”

Isis Leslie said...

Weber (and Stephen Hawking) aside, many scientists do not expect to demystify the world. But, I want to agree with Michaele that alliances with scientists as educators seem to be in order. In a small interdisciplinary liberal arts context, I observe that research scientists, who are also devoted to teaching, are engaged in the same kinds of battles with administrators about prioritizing critical thinking skills that political theorists face. Of course, scientists have little difficulty if they can find public or private corporations to sponsor their research, but if they want to teach others how to think about the world, well, then, there's a problem.

In this connection, particularly while we're discussing the Ancients, it would behoove us, I think (Weber aside), to interrogate the modern separation of the disciplines that we seem to be taking for granted when we talk about "the humanities." If we don't take the separation of "the humanities" and "the sciences" for granted (I am not simply trying to turn the conversation toward science fiction), it could become easier to draw the value of political theory into sight as a means of critically envisioning normative alternatives to the way things are that is distinct from "properly" social scientistic, descriptive political science projects.

Lastly, having only read the first chapter, of Not For Profit, I'm thinking For Love of Country makes a better teaching tool. Thoughts?

Isis Leslie said...

(I don't know how I came to be Dr. Leslie on here, rather than Isis, and it seems ridiculous, but...oh well.)

Amit Ron said...

I think that the bottom of page 7, where Nussbaum describes what she calls the "spirit of the humanities," speaks directly to some of the recent comments. Here it is:

"I shall try to show how the humanities and arts are crucial both in primary/secondary and in university education, ...
When practiced at their best, moreover, these other disciplines [sciences and social sciences, AR] are infused by what we might call the spirit of the humanities: by searching critical thought, daring imagination, empathetic understanding of human experiences of many different kinds, and understanding of the complexity of the world we live in. ... Although good science education is not my theme, a companion study on that topic would be a valuable complement to my focus on the humanities."

Amit Ron said...

As if there are not enough reasons to be proud about living in Arizona, the Arizona Republic reports
today on a new study that concludes that "Arizona students should focus their education toward specific career goals, starting at younger ages." You can also read in the article that the former CEO and chairman of Intel believes that "students also need to know what companies expect in an employee and how to start meeting those expectations in school."

The title of the report -- "To Learn to Earn" -- is noteworthy (based on my career choice, I must have been absent on the day that they taught this in my school).


John said...

I found this heartening, because the students deflected the utility question and re-framed it:

Relatedly: it bugs me that telling testimonials are so often dismissed as merely "anecdotal" in the assessment/accountability racket, whereas faceless data gets the red carpet treatment. Are we teaching general crowds or singular individuals? Is there some way to recuperate the importance of narratives against the numbers games?

Geert said...

Hi all,

I wrote a review of Nussbaum's book a while ago and has since become more sceptical about the liberal arts approach. I am more in favor of specialized BAs and MAs. In our field of new media it always strikes me that the LA students are not the brighest but the most average. Why?

John said...


Thanks for posting! But your generalizations about liberal arts students simply do not ring empirically true to me. Period. The term "liberal arts students" in your critique probably needs to be disaggregated, and your data set properly identified. In the U.S., liberal arts students scored the highest on the CLA test, as noted in the Academically Adrift book. And as former chair of Media Studies at liberal artsy Pomona College, I can tell you that liberal arts students and their professors are not the technophobes you describe (and I know that's true elsewhere). The computer science professors and their students at Pomona College and nearby Harvey Mudd Colleges and the other Claremont Colleges would wonder about your claim that liberal arts students aren't interested in programming or adept at code. A 1998 study (that looked at 40 years of data) showed that graduates of U.S. liberal arts colleges out-performed their peers in a great number of categories (see for a summary: Your rant seems edgy and contrarian, but is it anything more beyond your own gut sensibility?

abahachi said...

One of the responses of UK universities (or at any rate some of the larger, research-intensive ones) to the removal of state funding for humanities and social science degrees and the proposals for dramatic increases in fees has been to start developing interdisciplinary 'liberal arts' degrees alongside the traditional specialised programmes. This seems to be motivated almost entirely by the fear that students will respond to the prospect of increased debt by choosing more vocational degree programmes, which is a questionable assumption - there doesn't seem to be any evidence either way for the moment, but the basic conservatism of students, schools and employers here may mean that there's more rather than less demand for really traditional specialised degrees rather than anything that looks new-fangled or watered-down. Clearly, however, that says nothing about the instrinsic value of a humanities education in whatever form; it's based on the fact that any degree from the university of London or Manchester or Bristol is highly regarded by many employers, i.e. it's all about reputation and status. I suspect that many of my students have chosen the humanities route because they enjoy it (and/or don't like the hard sciency stuff) and are not harming their prospects by pursuing it, rather than because they hold any positive beliefs about the utility or importance of the humanities.

Neville Morley