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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Chapter 7: Democratic Education on the Ropes

I have learned much from Martha Nussbaum's scholarly writing, and I admire her attempts to bring the knowledge she has acquired in her scholarship to bear on matters of concern in our public life. But I do not think she is nearly as effective in the latter role as she is in the former, and I believe the book under discussion here provides a good illustration of her limitations as a public intellectual. Though I agree with the thrust of the book (what political theorist wouldn't?), I do not think the argument she puts forward is anywhere near as strong as it needs to be to address the challenge the book is designed to confront. I say this with regret because we badly need to confront this challenge, and the issues at stake are just the sort of thing those of us in the humanities (especially political theorists) should be able to address effectively. But if Nussbaum's way of making the case is the best we can do, we are in even deeper trouble than she suggests.



By the time one gets to the end of a book which makes a sustained argument, one tends to have something more than just the argument of the final chapter in mind. So in these remarks I am going to take the liberty of commenting on more than just the chapter I have been assigned, which is in many ways a summing up of the claims made in the preceding pages.


Why am I dissatisfied with the book? Let me focus on what I regard as the most serious problem with it, buidling on some of the things Ryan Balot has already said. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: surely Nussbaum knows otherwise, but in this book she acts as though the relationship between democracy and the humanities were unambiguously positive and complementary. But that is just not the case. One could well argue that just the opposite is true. There is plenty of evidence that could be cited in support of the proposition that democracy and the humanities are inherently in tension with one another, and that the potential for conflict this represents is something that can only be avoided by carefully controlling the terms on which both political and cultural life are conducted.


This is just what Nussbaum does, of course. She gives us an idealized picture of democracy and pairs it with an equally idealized characterization of the humanities which nicely complements the things she has to say about democracy. But even those of us who love the humanities and also consider ourselves to be democrats know the matter is more complicated than that. I do not mean to suggest that the picture she paints is altogether artificial; undoubtedly there have been situations where political and cultural life have been conducted in a manner that approximates the state of affairs she has in mind. But situations of that sort are hardly the norm. It is much more common for people's actual experience with both democratic politics and the humanities to be much more conflictual than Nussbaum acknowledges in this work.


I wish she had recognized more forthrightly that democracy is an inherently contested idea rather than simply stipulating her view as though it were self-evidently the correct one. I say that because I am sure that if the argument she advances in this book were ever to become a subject of public debate, one of the first objections it would encounter is that these days Americans, at least, tend not to conceive of democracy in the manner she does. I don't want to exaggerate the difference; those who have a less elevated (and more utilitarian) view can be expected to affirm some of the things she identifies as the marks of democratic regimes (regular, free and fair elections, e.g.). But if a person believes democracy is primarily a means to create (and maintain) an environment that is conducive to the enjoyment of private goods by individual citizens, I doubt they will be much impressed by a line of reasoning that emphasizes the quality of debate and deliberation in public life. Not without more of a supporting argument than Nussbaum provides, at least. And my hunch is that it will not be easy to come up with a version of such an argument that would really be effective in changing people's minds.


To be fair, Nussbaum does provide at times hints of such an argument, suggesting that the quality of the decision-making that occurs in public life is likely to be better if the participants are imbued with the qualities that can be expected to derive from exposure to the humanities. But most of what she has to say in this vein is expressed in passing, and it has the same stipulative (and highly moralistic) quality that characterizes the rest of her argument. So it fails to confront at all directly the obvious objections to it. Admittedly, if one has the values she espouses, it is surely better for public life to be conducted in such a way that the interests and opinions of minorities are treated fairly. But what if one does not share those values? What if one does not conceive of democracy that way? What if one thinks of democracy as an arena for struggle among forces that are competing for comparative advantage? In that case it is hardly self-evident that a more inclusive (much less a more empathetic) politics is desirable.


If the assumptions Nussbaum makes about the nature of democracy and the character of democratic values are debatable, even more is that true about the assumptions she makes about the humanities and the effects of exposure to them. I don't doubt that a humanistic education can have the sort of effects she proposes, but it is just stating the obvious to suggest that it can have other sorts of effects as well--some of which are patently un and even anti-democratic. Nor is it just the fact that humanistic learning exposes people to eloquent expressions of antidemocratic views that I have in mind in saying that, either. Even more it is that humanistic learning all too easily functions as what Bourdieu aptly characterized as cultural capital--i.e., a resource that can be used by those who possess it to "get (or stay) ahead" of their fellow citizens.
Here again, I am puzzled by Nussbaum's neglect of the subject. I recognize that she occasionally alludes to the fact that the humanities have a long history of association with aristocratic purposes, but in this work at least, she seems to be oblivious to the fact that the problem of class bias has not been solved just by making humanistic education more widely available and incorporating into it materials that reflect democratic values. But as any sociologist who has taken up this matter at all seriously will tell you, the problem is real, and it is almost certain to figure prominently in any public debate about the role of the humanities in our societies.


I share Nussbaum'e belief that humanistic learning can improve the quality of our public life, and I am convinced that the quality of our shared life is diminished when such learning is missing. But I think we need to face up honestly to the fact that all too often its effect is to produce a sense of superiority in the minds of those who have acquired it--and that it often is perceived that way by those who lack such "refinement." Undoubtedly this effect is in part a result of the way educational opportunity is distributed in our societies, but it cannot be taken for granted that it derives from just that. It could be that something deeper is involved--is there something inherently elitist about humanistic learning?--and I would submit that any serious discussion of the issue Nussbaum has raised in this book needs to come to grips with that possibility.


But is that not true of any learned knowledge? Is it not also true of the sciences and related technical fields? Yes and no. Any serious learning places demands on the learner that some people will find it easier to satisfy than others, and inherent in that circumstance is the possibility of significant inequalities. Indeed, it presents the possibility of forms of rule that are patently undemocratic. But I have the impression that that in our time, at least, there is a significant difference between the sciences and the humanities in this regard. It comes from the fact that the values that are assumed to be served by scientific inquiry and the resulting technological advances are much more widely believed to be in the interest of us all. Surely it is not an accident that even in these days of intense debates about such matters as global warming, scientists are much less likely than humanists to be accused of "elitism." Or that even when our students are not very good at learning science, they still tend to respect its value in a way that is not true when they find humanistic learning difficult. You don't find many of them saying that physics is "irrelevant," much less resenting its existence.


None of this is said, I reiterate, to suggest that Nussbaum is wrong in principle about the role the humanities can play in democratic societies. But it is to suggest that the matter is considerably more complex than she indicates, and that it will take much greater sociological realism than the book under discussion here offers to do justice to that complexity.


Let me add, in conclusion, one other illustration: as far as I can tell, there is not a word in this book about the role popular culture has played in creating the difficult situation in which we humanists now find ourselves. In so far as Nussbaum provides an analysis of how our societies got into this situation (a subject about which the book has far too little to say), her emphasis is entirely on economic developments. The story she tells is all about economic "imperatives" being imposed on us in such a way that almost everything else that matters to us has had to be sacrificed, to some degree.



No doubt that is true, but it is not the whole story. To explain, let me propose this thought experiment. Imagine where we would be if somehow, magically, our societies could find their way out of the economic predicament in which they now find themselves and our institutions of higher learning were flush once again in the manner they were, say, back in the 1960's. Imagine what the state of the humanities would be if, as a result of a development of the sort I have just described, we were authorized to reestablish the departments that have been closed and to expand significantly the number of faculty appointments available to us. Would that solve the problem? Would it get us out of the crisis? Undoubtedly it would relieve the pressure, but I don't think it would really do away with the crisis. Why? Because barring an equally dramatic change in the character of the popular culture, we would still be living in societies where much of what people encountered in popular venues was antagonistic to the habits of mind that are required to respond appreciatively to what the humanities have to offer.



The tension between popular culture and anything remotely resembling high culture is not a new phenomenon, of course. It is an old story, but the problem it presents seems to me to have been getting worse in recent years, due in no small part to the newer technologies now available to us and the way they have been exploited commercially. There have always been people who have been impatient with the disciplines required to learn--or create--anything that is intellectually complex, and popular culture has encouraged that tendency. But today the drift of our popular culture is such as to make it socially acceptable (and even chic) for people to be ignorant about all kinds of important subjects and to be impatient with any suggestion that they need to subject themselves to the kind of (disciplined) learning that might enable them to deal with intellectually challenging topics effectively.



I trust that in this forum I need not go into much detail in explaining that claim. Even those of us who are privileged to teach good students in institutions that value the humanities can feel the pressure being exerted on our work by the pervasive tendency in the more popular parts of our culture, at least, to simplify--and yes, dumb down--virtually everything that is discussed in that domain. We see it in our students (and sometimes even in ourselves), whose habits of mind are all too often alien to the kind of serious, sustained attention to complex texts we are trying to foster. The better ones find ways of giving such texts the attention they deserve, to be sure. But even for them it tends to be an effort, while for so many others it is effort that is just not worth making. Why devote any serious attention to, say, Plato, they wonder, when we have so many easier and quicker ways of answering the questions he addressed? And if by chance we do find that we need to know something about Plato at some point in our lives (for some practical purpose), we can always look it up on the Internet.



I concede that the current preoccupation with economic goods makes it easier to people to think this way, but I don't think it is the only reason why they do so. At least as important, I submit, is the fact that in our time some of the most powerful forces at work in shaping our cultural life appear to have taken an anti-intellectual turn. They seem to have deliberately turned againsgt intellectual sophistication, in fact, and their efforts have on the whole been well received by the public (a development that probably should not surprise us but still should give any committed democrat pause). So we find ourselves in a situation where even ostensibly well educated people see no point in acquiring anything more than a veneer or cultural sophistication (if that). That is what we are up against, and as far as I am concerned, this state of affairs poses an even more dangerous threat to the health of our polity than the one on which Nussbaum has chosen to focus her attention.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Chapter 6: Cultivating Imagination

My thanks to all who’ve participated in this project so far. I’ve found reading the posts and comments intellectually satisfying, with a richness, depth, and diversity that reflects well on both APT and Nussbaum’s text. I share the reservations of many, even most, who’ve posted in this forum, but the capacity of Not for Profit to provoke such engagement over such a range of issues offers evidence that her text is worthy of debate. That stipulated, I was disappointed by Nussbaum’s argument. I read her short post in the NY Times “Do Colleges Need French Departments?” roundtable last fall, which summarized the arguments of this book, and I was eager to see those points defended more fully. I’ve found, unfortunately, that the expanded defense dilutes the power of her assertions. Nonetheless, I do share Nussbaum’s faith in the power of the humanities to transform students and foster a better democratic society, and offer the comments that follow in that spirit.

My initial comment is more of a quibble, though I think it illustrates concisely some of the flaws of this book. It is not at all clear to me that “play” generates “empathy,” nor that empathy is a necessary prerequisite to flourishing democratic citizenship. Winnicott “had confidence in the unfolding of the developmental process, which would produce ethical concerns – and the basis for a healthy democracy – as an outgrowth of early struggles, if things went well enough” (98), but should I have such confidence? Isn’t it plausible that a well unfolded developmental process might produce self-satisfied egotists draped in self-regard? Perhaps it is the case that these dispositions are largely genetic or products of evolutionary development? More importantly, the core of the argument of this chapter is, characteristically, simply slipped into the sentence between the hyphens of Winnicott’s quote, unintentionally but accurately signaling how lightly this assertion rests within the argument. The idea that a healthy democracy has at its base the capacity for ethical concern and empathetic imagination receives little sustained attention or defense apart from Winnicott’s parenthetical conviction. It is offered as if evident, with the authority of Winnicott and the progressive educational theorists as warrants. I’ve no doubt this sort of narrative imagination contributes to an ethical disposition and that such a disposition will lead to a better life for such individuals, but I’m genuinely confused as to how the ethical character of individuals provides a foundation for democratic citizenship. Is it at all plausible to condition the health of democracy upon the ethics of its citizens, especially in the pluralistic world of clashing comprehensive doctrines within which we live? Such a person might find the going difficult in Madison’s realm of clashing ambitions or Weber’s consequentialist vocation.

But taking the grounds as given, how does humanistic study nurture the democratic imagination Nussbaum feels essential? In part, it appears, by creating a place for play that adults might otherwise be unable to find. Winnicott “held that a primary function of art in all human cultures is to preserve and enhance the cultivation of the “play space,” and saw the role of the arts in human life as, above all, that of nourishing and extending the capacity for empathy” (101). Leaving aside the grandiosity of his claimed understanding of all human cultures, the assertion here seems problematic as a defense of the humanities. First, to assert the primacy of art as the means to preserve play does not imply that only art can serve this function effectively. What about actual play? The idea that adults lack “play space” without the arts is bizarre. Adults engage in actual sport, play games of skill and chance, inhabit virtual worlds and communities, and compete with one another in a multitude of modes. I’m sympathetic with the idea that play and democracy reinforce one another, and accept that the arts help sustain that sense of play, but aren’t the many opportunities citizens have to engage in real play just as important? Certainly the Greeks understood the value of the agon, and the citizens of Athenian democracy saw competitive play as an essential element of democratic life. It may be the case that our contemporary public life is too sedate, too serious, too unplayful to be healthy, but the arts are not likely to provide the solution for everyone, or even the majority.

Second, Nussbaum’s account of how the arts encourage play and build empathetic capacity betrays a surprisingly instrumental view of the humanities, a tendency others have identified as well. Note the central description of the educative role of the arts, which are intended to both cultivate empathy and “address cultural blind spots” through “carefully crafted instruction” and equally careful selection of texts that will advance these purposes. This is not an argument for the inherent value of the arts and humanities, and if better tools were discovered to teach empathy and cultural understanding then the argument might be easily turned against this style of education. Her instrumentalism also leads Nussbaum to propose fairly undemocratic criteria by which this careful selection of texts occurs. We need, she argues, to teach the “right” literature and exclude the “defective” literature (108-109), a distinction determined by the capacity to produce the correct sort of imagination. This is Socratic in the wrong way: are we really to prohibit those “artworks that exclude uneven sympathies” (109)? And how do we sort out the defective “literature” from the functional? The quotes around literature here are Nussbaum’s, implying literature which fails her test should be considered not merely insufficient for use in education but not even literature at all. Surely a robust defense of the humanities must recognize that its lessons exceed those intended by the instructor and that an authentic encounter with art may be both edifying and destructive? The power of art is not one to be harnessed in the fashion Nussbaum describes; fear of this uncontrollable power is what led the Socrates of the Republic to restrict poetry, music, and drama, and Nussbaum’s similar instinct demonstrates a similar fear.

Even if we were to accept this instrumentalist view of the arts, could we live with the implications for our culture? Consider, as just one example, Homer. We know the Socrates of The Republic thought the epics should be edited to remove dangerous passages, but Nussbaum’s criteria would seem to exclude these texts altogether. Parts of the Iliad lend themselves to cultural respect and moral imagination, particularly Achilles’s grief at the death of Patroclus and his recognition of the humanity of Priam when he decides to return the body of his son. But Achilles’s grief leads not to peace but his willing return to war, a war from which he had abstained not for moral reasons but out of petulance at having his human prize stolen from him, and in the funeral games in the book prior to the wonderful moment with Priam Achilles casually, and without any comment from the authorial voice, sacrifices twelve Trojan prisoners to sanctify the games. The challenge for a modern to inhabit this world is substantial and doing so in meaningful ways stretches one’s capacity to comprehend the complexity of human cultures, but its deeply held assumptions about the status of women, slaves, enemies, and inferiors surely demonstrates the “uneven sympathies” Nussbaum believes justifies exclusion from the curriculum of democratic citizenship. The Odyssey is equally problematic as a source of lessons in tolerance and cultural empathy. Only by inhabiting Odysseus anachronistically might one develop empathy for others; he certainly doesn’t show it in his actions. Only the intervention of the gods at the conclusion prevents yet more bloody civil conflict, a conflict Odysseus eagerly seeks out despite the combatants being his fellow Ithacans and despite their understandable anger that he has killed some of their sons. And the casual ways in which he disposes of (multiple!) crews of various ships hardly indicates a validation of their equal humanity.

Homeric epic won’t be alone in failing the task Nussbaum sets. Many bad artists delivered bad messages through great works of art; while some of them might teach tolerance and empathy, many or more reveal darker aspects of human character or indulge unreflectively in the deeply held prejudices of their time. Hers is not a justification for teaching arts and literature I can endorse, both because it might be so easily undermined and because I think it is simply wrong. The arts should teach us about the ambiguity, complexity, glory and failings of human experience, not only that portion of historical experiences that serve our contemporary ideals. The strangeness of inhabiting an alien perspective that immersion in the art of other cultures provokes might very well foster empathy for those we find strange or unsympathetic in our daily lives, but it might also merely set us to thinking, without any ethical or intercultural payoff at all.

I fear Nussbaum’s argument that democratic citizenship demands the capacity to imagine the perspectives or experiences of others is based upon a misconception of what democratic citizenship actually entails. Leaving aside whether or not arts and literature can achieve her objectives, it seems plausible to suggest that the demands of democratic citizenship are shallower that Nussbaum implies, and if democracy can function just fine without the widespread presence of properly formed narrative imaginations, than this particular defense of the humanities will lack traction. What does contemporary citizenship entail? For many citizens, little or nothing – a majority do not even vote. And among those who do participate, what do they do? Even helping select those who will make policy and trying to influence their decisions describes a fairly high level of engagement, one that is uncommon. Mainstream political science assumes these activities are governed by the pursuit of interests or mobilization by elites; how would things change if the work of common citizenship were informed by narrative imagination? It’s hard to see how voting for candidates would be impacted, since voting is a rather crude tool and candidates’ positions are often unclear. Perhaps the partisan identifications of voters might shift toward the more empathetic party, though given what we know about the origins of partisanship and the post-hoc rationalizations that partisan identity elicits, I imagine this unlikely. Perhaps a more widespread sense of empathy would contribute to greater levels of political mobilization intended to influence policy makers between elections, but absent far more information and sophistication than most citizens now possess, such empathetic mobilization might be ineffective, contradictory, or manipulated. It might be the case that empathy and imagination will inspire citizens to gather information, learn the intricacies of political influence, and consider the sometimes brutal trade-offs involved in governing, but I am skeptical, and see little evidence to support such a hope. Perhaps solving the crisis in civics education should be a precursor to resolving that besting the humanities?

It might instead be the case that the empathy learned from contemplation of the great art and literature of the world will make policy-makers themselves more sensitive to the impact of their work on the needy and more respectful of the weak. But if the argument depends upon the actions of elite citizens, the wisdom of the investment necessary to foster this skill in all citizens might be questioned. In any case the evidence of our recent history would bode poorly for Nussbaum’s hopes: most of those responsible for the least empathetic and most destructive decisions of the last decade attended elite institutions where the humanities were central to the curriculum, with some earning degrees from programs defined by a commitment to the great books. Their love of the humanities did not prevent them from planning unnecessary wars, trampling democratic liberties, trafficking in public deceptions, or justifying torture. If emphasizing arts and literature is essential to democratic citizenship because it makes citizens better decision makers, then the argument is weak for at least two reasons: most citizens are spectators rather than decision makers, and the evidence that education in the humanities leads to better decisions is scant at best.

As a normative vision of democratic citizenship to which we should all aspire, I endorse Nussbaum’s ideal. I, too, hope to live amongst engaged, empathetic, culturally sensitive, and ethically attuned fellow citizens. But the absence of such a citizenry does not make for a crisis of democracy, unless the crisis has been perpetually with us. Here is where I encounter a recurrent frustration with this text. The frame of the book suggests study of the humanities will be justified in practical terms, showing that democracy needs such education to thrive. The “crisis” of the humanities imperils democracy. It is not pitched as an argument for how the humanities might bring into being the model democracy of an imagined future, or even an ideal type against which to measure our own practices. This strategy is wise, as an argument meant to convince people to devote resources to humanities education now in the name of a utopian future has little hope of success. But the rhetoric of the argument repeatedly falls back to the ideal, to the exception, to the anecdote, and to the evocative, all couched in intensely normative terms. I find this rhetorical mismatch exasperating, especially since I believe a practical argument can and must be developed to defend the humanities. Nussbaum seems unwilling to make such an argument, but also unwilling to endorse a full-throated normative defense of the inherent value of arts and literature. We end up with an argument unpersuasive to any constituency: not practical enough for skeptics, not passionate enough for the already persuaded.

Moreover, the trope of loss and decline she employs throughout implies that our democracy was healthy once and could be healthy again if we found the means to defend the humanities from the alleged attack upon them. But when was this lost past to be found? As I argued in a comment early in this collective project, her nostalgia speaks to a time of elites, when a very small portion of the American population graduated from institutions of higher education. Certainly the 7% of citizens who earned degrees in 1950 received a strong education in the humanities, and the argument for imaginative citizenship proposed in this chapter applies to this cohort, largely identical with the class that eventually governed the state and society. But if President Obama’s goal of restoring the United States to preeminence in postsecondary attainment by 2020 is met, then closer to 60% of Americans will need to earn degrees. It cannot suffice to argue that the best way to serve this extraordinarily different population of students, students who will be participating in a much greater range of social roles than those graduates of the 50’s and 60’s, is to return to “pre-crisis” version of the curriculum that so inspired many of us who became professors. It might turn out to be the right response, but that argument requires evidence, both of what these students need and what a humanities education can do for and to them. Nussbaum stipulates the conclusion (study of the humanities is necessary for healthy democracy), asserts the humanities are in decline (itself a highly contentious claim), and then proceeds to suggest why and how reinvigorating the humanities will make democracy work. But it’s the conclusion that needs to be demonstrated, and apart from normative assertions and anecdotal accounts of individual transformation, that conclusion is left largely undefended.

I do believe the value of the humanities can be demonstrated, and in ways that do not depend upon an already shared commitment to their importance. Unlike Nussbaum, however, I think this argument can and must be grounded in meaningful evidence in addition to normative and rhetorical argument. Nussbaum repeatedly asserts, throughout the text, that the value of a humanities education simply cannot measured, that its outcomes cannot be quantified, and that its effective delivery demands a particular (and particularly expensive!) kind of pedagogy. I contend that she is wrong. The educational benefits of the humanities are difficult to assess, but many of the most interesting research projects in social science encounter such difficulty. To claim phenomena cannot be understood systematically betrays a failure of imagination or understanding. If we can define, rigorously and transparently, the growth we expect to see in students as a result of their participation in a humanistic curriculum, we can also figure out ways to evaluate whether or not students achieve these goals. Nussbaum clearly understands what she wants the humanities to do for students. She offers wonderful stories illustrating how the humanities transformed particular students, like Billy Tucker and Amita Sen. These anecdotes define beautifully the outcomes she thinks an education in the humanities can deliver: Tucker demonstrated growth in abstract thinking, developed the ability to discern flaws in political arguments, and produced arguments in support of positions with which he did not agree. As a result of these concrete outcomes Tucker became a more respectful citizen inclined to look for consensus and commonality. This is a wonderful description of what the humanities can do. Moreover, we have a pretty good idea of how do produce such transformations, as Nussbaum details in her discussion of Tucker’s philosophy course (55-56). But the anecdote begs, for me, the central question: what of the other students in Billy Tucker’s philosophy seminar, or the other students in other sections of this required course? Did this course transform them all? Did they all demonstrate growth in abstract thinking, critical analysis, and understanding of diverse perspectives? Did the methods that worked so effectively with Tucker, methods Nussbaum asserts can only happen using a very particular sort of pedagogy (55), work as well for the rest of these students? If not, what texts or pedagogies might be more effective for the median student rather than the exception? Did Tucker develop these skills because of this course, because of a series of courses, as part of co-curricular experiences, or because of the process of intellectual maturation that takes place in young adults concurrent to their enrollment in traditional colleges and universities? How would we know?

We would know if we were willing to take assessment seriously. I realize I risk touching off a nasty conflict in the comments by posing the claim this directly, but so be it. I want to know whether or not humanities education (and social science, and natural science, and everything else we teach) actually transforms our students, and I want to know how our curriculums can do so more effectively. If we want to claim the humanities produce impacts of the magnitude Nussbaum suggests, surely we can define what evidence of movement toward those impacts looks like in the work students produce for us. And surely we can devise meaningful methods to evaluate this work in ways that will help is revise and improve the effectiveness of the course of study so that we begin to reach all our students, and not merely the exceptional ones. The move from anecdote to outcome is not a difficult one to make; in fact, one of the best ways to help faculty figure out what they hope their program of study should do is to ask them to describe the skills and disposition of their ideal graduate. If we can figure that out, we can also figure out what skills every graduate of a program should demonstrate, and whether or not they are all actually expected to do so in the courses we require and the work we assign. From there it’s only a small step to collecting this work in order to reflect collectively on our effectiveness. There is no conflict between this sort of careful articulation of the concrete objectives of humanities education and the ineffable beauty of these texts. Frankly, if the humanities teach critical thinking, develop comfort with ambiguity, instill a passion for life-long learning, and build skills in problem solving, then humanities faculty should be better at this than any of our peers.

Nussbaum asserts that “the economic growth culture has a fondness for standardized tests, and an impatience with pedagogy and content that are not easily assessed in this way” (48), and thus dismisses efforts to collect evidence of learning as a corruption of the educational mission. In her index the entry for “assessment” says “see testing,” as if the two were one and the same. But her allergy to evidence renders her argument weaker than it might otherwise be. How much more persuasive to external audiences would this argument be if she could articulate clearly the essential skills that courses in the humanities develop, explain exactly how these skills developed in the classroom translate into improved capacities for democratic citizenship, and show persuasive evidence that those skills are actually developed for all or most students who complete such classes? It is true, as Nussbaum says, that only “a much more nuanced qualitative assessment of classroom interactions and student writing could tell us to what extent students have learned skills of critical argument” (48). But there is no reason we can’t develop such more nuanced tools, if we are willing to engage seriously in the investigation of student learning and take responsibility for defining what we want students to be able to do and know. If Nussbaum is right, and I think she is correct despite my objections to the way she presents her argument in Not for Profit, then this is a challenge we should take up with vigor, precisely so the reductive tools of the “growth model” don’t become the only ones taken seriously. Our resistance to measurement is leading toward that outcome, and it is undermining our ability to defend the things we love.

I had one final point to make about Nussbaum’s implicit vision of democracy, but this post is getting overlong as is. If appropriate I’ll develop this argument in the comments, but for now will say only this: Nussbaum assumes democracy is a means to reach the best answer, not a set of institutions developed to channel irresolvable conflicts into peaceful but contingent outcomes. Much of her defense of philosophical education as essential to democratic citizenship derives from her unstated premise that reason will lead the correct answer, and thus democratic conflict needs the guidance of reason. This is how she views the value of Socratic education: the Socratic citizen will uncover the common ground necessary to “help fellow citizens progress to a shared conclusion” (51). Democracy becomes, on this model, a mechanism to generate truth, perhaps the best mechanism or only legitimate one, but clearly a means to a greater end than itself. If, by contrast, we posit that no correct answers exist within the realm of democratic contestation and that democracy is justified precisely by this absence of certainty, then those citizens who come to see their role as shepherding the rest of us toward the truth betray a lack of understanding of the purpose of democracy. The unruly, contentious, disrespectful, and fickle democracy of classical Athens, the democracy Socrates so despised and that Nussbaum believes needed his corrective influence, seems to me a far better model for a truly egalitarian politics. I would prefer a competitive, agonistic model of democratic politics, where we might agree to accept the outcome of any particular vote as legitimate without believing it embodies a consensus or a common ground, and where the arguments are always revisable, including even the grounds of reason itself. This sort of agitation and conflict is significantly more “utterly unauthoritarian” (50) than the Socratic impulse to bring the people to consensus upon the truth. And this sort of ribald democratic order needs the humanities as much or more than Nussbaum’s consensus model. Nussbaum prefers a Socratic democracy. I think we need more Aristophanes.

Friday, July 8, 2011

5. Citizens of the World

First off, I’d like to echo John’s words of thanks to the organizers of this discussion for getting it going, and for inviting me to participate. It’s been great fun thinking about the book and reading through the posts—both activities have forced my brain to work (albeit sluggishly) in the melting heat. I’d also like to preface my fairly critical comments with two caveats: First, there’s much about Martha Nussbaum’s scholarship and work as a public intellectual that I admire. Second, I’m acutely aware that it’s much easier to point out what I happen to think could and should have been done in this book than to write it myself.

So said, I want to pick up and further develop a thread of criticism raised in different ways by many of the previous posts, namely, the disjuncture between the substance of Nussbaum’s argument and her mode of argumentation. As others have suggested explicitly or implicitly, Nussbaum consistently fails to enact the pedagogical, political and epistemological principles central to the claims of the book. John points out, for example, that Nussbaum’s brief for the connection between the liberal arts and democracy is decidedly autocratic and reductive in style and form. Lawrie underscores the unacknowledged mechanisms of power (and indoctrination?) involved in the production of students (and citizens) who think for themselves. Neville emphasizes the problem with a book celebrating critical thinking and careful sifting of evidence that largely proceeds by association and implication, and Ryan foregrounds the distinct lack of Socratic self-examination in her deployment of the categories of “democracy” and the “humanities.”

The following comments are an effort to detail how this problem plays out in chapter 5, in which Nussbaum builds on the previous chapters and her other work on cosmopolitanism to posit a connection between the liberal arts and “citizen-of-the-world education.” In the process, I’d like to suggest that this disjuncture is not a tangential matter of style or consistency, but undermines the very coherence and persuasiveness of her substantive arguments.

As many of you have pointed out with reference to the previous chapters, the book really orbits at a level of abstraction that rarely touches down to grapple with the messiness of concrete situations. In chapter 5, many of her claims are similarly abstract and reductionist, stated as fact without nuance, qualification, or supporting evidence. For example, (p. 83) she writes that “[c]hildren are naturally curious about the rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations of other natures and religions.” On p. 81, she states that “ignorance is a virtual guarantee of bad behavior.” Both of these claims may be true, but the devil is in the details. Who, precisely, is she talking about, where’s the evidence to substantiate such broad assertions, and what about all the knotty epistemological problems that inevitably accompany such statements about nature and human behavior?

Some might contend that these kinds of abstractions reflect the conventions of philosophical argument and/or that the simplicity of the claims are related to the broad audiences to which the book is pitched. This may well be the case, yet these tendencies ultimately work against the persuasiveness of her argument, even to those (like myself) predisposed to agree with her. To take just one specific example: she writes that the pervasive equation of Islam with terrorism can be combated through education that cultivates an appreciation and respect for differences. On the one hand, there is surely something right about this. On the other hand, it sidesteps entirely the fact that the current tendency to equate Islam and terrorism is not traceable to a lack of knowledge or misunderstanding; rather it’s generated and reinforced by a number of historically specific cultural, socioeconomic and geopolitical developments too numerous and familiar to reproduce here, and that are unlikely to be erased by curricula emphasizing respect for difference. In fact, while such equations and assumptions have recently gathered steam, they are structured by broader cultural discourses that predate the U.S.-led “War on Terror” by decades and even centuries. Consider the fact that characterizations of Muslims as uniquely violent and intolerant have a long and distinguished pedigree in European history and scholarship. Here Ernest Renan’s famous 1883 address to the Sorbonne is instructive. For Renan, the Muslim is constrained by an "iron clasp around his head, which makes it completely closed to science, incapable of learning anything, or of openness to any new ideas. From the time of his religious instruction, around the age of ten or twelve, a Muslim child–until then somewhat receptive–suddenly becomes a fanatic, full of the deluded pride of holding what he knows as the absolute truth, happy as though privileged in possessing what actually makes him inferior."

This leads to another point, namely, that the chapter misses the crucial opportunity to specify precisely how liberal arts education turns “awareness” into “concern for” (p. 82) other cultures, groups and living conditions that exist both within and beyond national borders. It’s well known that awareness of and exposure to different cultures and practices can serve and has served to shore up self-serving prejudices, conceits of superiority, and antipathy to difference, in some instances justifying imperialist ventures, ancient and modern. The central question, then, is precisely the one Nussbaum neatly sidesteps: which pedagogical practices facilitate the crucial move from “awareness” to “concern,” and how precisely do they work? The key, it seems to me, is not only which texts are read, for example, but how they’re read, not only what kinds of claims are made (say, about the virtues of critical thinking), but whether and how they’re actually enacted and modeled in the classroom. Nussbaum appears to recognize this point when she refers to the BJP’s Hindu supremacist version of world history, but does not follow where it leads.

At its best, a liberal arts education involves (among other things) exposure to and familiarity with a range of traditions, past and present; critical examination of the content and premises of facts about the world expressed in our language and categories of analysis; and cultivation of the capacity for deliberation among fellow-citizens, citizens who may in this way become responsible political actors in an increasingly globalized world. These aims are undermined by pedagogical practices that exclusively affirm top-down, autocratically delivered knowledge or curricula that include only texts, cases and evidence that confirm rather than challenge, reassure rather than disorient. The move from cognizance to concern, then, likely depends upon those pedagogical practices that not only 1) facilitate awareness of the variety of peoples, languages and histories within and beyond national borders, but do so in a way that 2) curtails tendencies to project our own preoccupations and experiences onto others or rummage around through other people’s histories and cultures in search of arguments that simply confirm our own and 3) facilitates critical reflection toward our own assumptions, commitments and inherited shibboleths. The last step is particularly crucial to the move from awareness to concern, as such critical distance makes it possible (but far from inevitable) to recognize the extent to which our own “values” and arrangements are not nearly as natural, inescapable, and coherent as we assume and, concomitantly, that what is radically unfamiliar need not be misguided, threatening, or incomprehensible.

In chapter 5, Nussbaum makes the case for 1) while neglecting 2) and 3). I might put the point even more strongly and say that she argues for 1), but exemplifies precisely what goes wrong when a well-intentioned scholar rummages around the “non-West” in search of arguments and thinkers that confirm her own while failing to critically examine her own assumptions and categories. The result is an argument for a global-citizen education characterized by a fairly pinched vision of the world and its cultures. Her arguments are narrowly organized around democratic (liberal) states which, in turn, makes India a stand-in for the “non-West,” and Tagore a stand-in for India, countered by the ‘bad’ example of the BJP. Too often, her references to humans and “us all” turn out to be shorthand for Americans, Europeans and Indians. Religion–and especially Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism--is an object of study, an indication of otherness, and a litmus test for the kind of tolerance a “citizen-of-the-world education” should produce. Beyond her focus is the potential of these religious traditions to be not only objects of study but interpretive frameworks that may themselves (under certain conditions) help cultivate precisely the kind of global awareness and sympathetic imagination (in Bruce Robbins’ words) she celebrates.

This raises other kinds of questions, such as: Can the pedagogical practices conducive to such critical thinking transpire under the rubric of (and I know this is heretical to ask) religious education, or outside of formal institutions of education altogether? What are the potential connections between such practices, transpiring in unexpected arenas, and emergent democratic politics in nonliberal states? Such queries may seem unfair, as they are admittedly outside of the stated focus of her inquiry, yet that seems to me precisely the point. To build on Lawrie’s post, it seems to me that questions about the harder cases and more complex evidence her argument excludes or sidesteps could productively challenge her assumptions, in part by forcing her to more carefully and precisely connect certain kinds of pedagogical practices with critical thinking, and then to connect such thinking with the kind of sympathetic imagination conducive to moral action.

Had Nussbaum actually enacted rather than just endorsed Socrates’ exhortation to lead the examined life, moreover, she would have had to engage in 3) above. This would have required, among other things, careful disaggregation of the many assumptions, aspirations, mechanisms and phenomena here bundled into the category of “democracy.”Such analysis might well have opened up her argument about democracy and the liberal arts to all sorts of examples and evidence from so-called “non-Western” societies that her narrow focus precludes.

For it seems to me that there are at least two registers to Nussbaum’s truncated understanding of democracy in the book. The first register is signaled by references to democratic states; here she emphasizes elections, rights, institutions, laws, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (p. 24-25, 28). In the second register, democracy is signaled less by laws and institutions than democratic practices where debate, reflection, critical thinking, imaginative sympathy toward differences, and (less explicitly) a willingness to challenge authority are central. The first might be said to emphasize the features of a liberal state, the second to emphasize what some have termed a democratic ethos. The focus of the book permits Nussbaum to take the two as smoothly continuous and compatible. Thus she sees no need to decouple them, to analyze them not only as different constellations of concepts with different histories and not always compatible presuppositions, but as political phenomena that might well work against one another.

As Sheldon Wolin argues in “Fugitive Democracy,” for example, the liberal state and its institutions regulate the amount of democratic politics “let in,” domesticate the “voice of the people” by permitting popular energies to be released in only in intensely scripted, highly regulated, periodic doses called ‘elections,’ and thereby contain the transgressive, boundary-challenging energies of popular power. By contrast, he argues that “[d]emocracy is not about where the political is located but how it is experienced,” and is particularly evident in moments of revolutionary transgression by which the demos destroys “boundaries that bar access to political experience. Individuals from the excluded social strata take on responsibilities, deliberate about goals and choices, and share in decisions that have broad consequences and affect unknown and distant others.”

Whether or not one agrees with Wolin in general or in detail, this argument foregrounds an understanding of democratic practices unrelated to–and in significant tension with--the establishment and survival of the liberal state. This is a particularly helpful way to think about the existence and potential of pedagogical practices that transpire beyond institutions of formal education (as is evident in a number of societies that fall outside of her inquiry), and their connection to emergent democratic practices in non-liberal states. A case in point are the revolts currently taking place in the Middle East. From Pearl Square to Hama, ordinary people often seen as powerless have acted in concert to challenge the barriers to their own participation in politics. In reclaiming popular power, they are enacting democratic politics, yet it is crucial to point out that these demonstrations aim at more than bringing about states reflective of and accountable to its citizenry. To quote an organizer of one of the many new Egyptian political parties: “Democracy is not just about electoral ballots and politics at the national level–it is about how you run your organization, how you run your small neighborhood, it is about having a say in every aspect of your life.” The outcome of revolts from Tunisia to Yemen remains uncertain to say the least. Nevertheless, they exemplify those moments when deeply entrenched patterns of power and powerlessness are disrupted–a moment when many of the established shibboleths about Muslims, about Arabs, about democracy, globalization and foreign policy are outpaced by events. It’s a moment of great danger as well as of tremendous possibility. But regardless of how the dust settles, they are reminders that such democratic power still erupts, if only episodically, in a world where events so often seem to be determined by bureaucracies, globalized markets, and remote elites.

Of course, these revolts erupted after the publication of NFP, but there are other, previous moments elsewhere that reveal dimensions of democratic politics routinely obscured by the focus on states and institutions. Such examples would have challenged the way Nussbaum’s focus on liberal-democratic states permits her to assay the “non-West” entirely through the case of India. This, in turn, might also have enabled her to grapple with why it is that (as John points out), at the very moment the death of the liberal arts is declaimed in America, there’s a notable uptick in interest in the liberal arts in the “non-West” and in non-liberal states in particular (I witnessed this first-hand recently when Wellesley hosted a committee of educators from China seeking our guidance in establishing liberal arts curricula). Both would have provided a much-needed way to interrogate and broaden the assumptions about democracy, about the liberal arts, and about the potential connection between the two underlying the book.
Roxanne