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.