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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.


abahachi said...

I'm off on holiday tomorrow, so won't be able to follow the discussion as closely as I'd like, but first and foremost Roxanne needs to be congratulated on finding interesting things to say about what I found the most vacuous and annoying chapter in the whole book...

I've been trying to remember if anyone has so far talked much about fear and uncertainty - perhaps because I'm reading Ulrich Beck at the moment. On the one hand, one of the claims that the humanities can make is that they help people learn how to live in an ever-changing, increasingly diverse and bewildering world, under conditions of globalisation, flexible accumulation etc. Clearly this is Nussbaum's suggestion, both postively and through the negative example of the BJP. The problem, as Roxanne points out, is that (at least in this presentation) the mechanism proposed (insofar as anything concrete is proposed) is not that humanities study helps one appreciate and understand complexity, ambiguity and incompatibility of different world views, but that humanities study magically inculcates the view that racism is always wrong and most Muslims are nice. In other words, it's the slippage from teaching forms of thought to teaching values again.

It is almost as if N. assumes that her audience has an innate fear of complexity and diversity - perhaps a reasonable assumption - and, rather than challenging this, tries to reassure her readers by expunging complexity and diversity from her account. We can't admit that someone might sometimes end up learning different values from their study of the humanities, because that simply plays into the hands of the instrumentalist bean-counters?

I'm reminded of the endless arguments I once had with a mature Masters student who'd been a commercial lawyer in his previous existence; whenever I tried to get him to accept that there might be a number of possible interpretations of a text, he would respond that he came from the real world where you're asked a question and have to give a proper answer, with none of this self-indulgent shilly-shallying about complexity and ambiguity. Heaven only knows why he wanted to do a Masters in ancient history, but I can't help feeling that he would have enjoyed this book - and that N. has people like him in mind as her main audience.

Neville Morley

Peyton Wofford said...

Thank you, Roxanne, for providing thought-provoking remarks. You make an excellent case for the serious implications of “the disjuncture between the substance of Nussbaum’s argument and her mode of argumentation.” And I certainly agree with your observation “that it is much easier to point out what I happen to think could and should have been done in this book than to write it myself.”

With that said, here goes. Nussbaum’s use of India as a “stand in” for the non-West and the questions you asked about religious traditions and education are particularly interesting. I found myself thinking about the role of national identity in Nussbaum’s global initiative.
For example, she suggests children “hear a Hindu and Buddhist story sometimes, and not always a classic American story expressing Protestant American values.” A few pages earlier, Nussbaum (p. 80) argues, “The world’s schools, colleges, and universities therefore have an important and urgent task: to cultivate in students the ability to see themselves as members of a heterogeneous nation (for all modern nations are heterogeneous).” Looking at these together lead me to ask, what of nations that define themselves according to ethnic or religious standards? As those who study politics know, national identities are built on different foundations (e.g., civic commitments and economic values, to name two more), which can result in varying levels of heterogeneity. What issues does this pose for “the task of teaching intelligent world citizenship?”

Religious traditions do have the potential Roxanne describes, although I may understand it differently. Religious traditions have protected and nurtured the foundation of our liberal arts during substantial periods of human history (e.g., the 12th-14th centuries). They have also provided compelling arguments for the dignity of the weak, dependent, and otherwise different. There is fascinating work being done on this by some Aristotelians.

Roxanne’s final two-part question (and her post overall) leaves us with much to talk about. She asks, “Can the pedagogical practices conducive to such critical thinking transpire under the rubric of 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?”

There seems to me to be a distinction between education informed by religion and theological education. Education informed by religion enhances liberal education, helping students grasp (and perhaps even revel in) the uncertainty of the human experience. This can take the form of education about religions, as well as explanation and defense of the basic tenants of the religion a student experienced as a child. Rousseau’s Emil keeps coming to mind here.

Lisa Ellis said...

Thanks, Roxanne, for moving our discussion ahead with your incisive arguments about what is admittedly a weak, almost throw-away chapter. Rising above the material, Roxanne makes several crucial distinctions. I want to highlight one: the difference between awareness of other peoples and concern for them (and in a third step, critical self-analysis). Here at Texas A&M, I frequently teach students with substantial awareness of an interest in other cultures, but very little self-critical capacity (missionaries and soldiers in training, to name the two most common types a bit too bluntly). It seems to me that study of political theory in particular is able to move these students from Roxanne's level 1 (interest, awareness) to level 3 ("critical reflection toward our own assumptions, commitments and inherited shibboleths.... 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"). This kind of awareness does not have to be inspired by encounters with otherness. It was Bernie Yack's course on revolutionary theory that first hit me with the fluidity of social practices, for example, and when that happened to me I was not even at Roxanne's level one. Something about good political theorizing, enacting rather than just citing Socratic questioning as Nussbaum does, leads us to recognition of the plurality of legitimate modes of political being. If you are with me this far, then help me answer the next question: how does this third-level understanding map onto Roxanne's distinction between the liberal state and the democratic ethos?

Ryan Balot said...

Many thanks to Roxanne for this interesting and enlightening post.

I thought I might draw attention to another of Fish's interventions on topics related to Nussbaum's book, just published in the NYT today:

sani66 said...

Thanks for these very thoughtful posts. Let me see if I might clarify a couple of points raised in Peyton’s and Lisa’s helpful comments.

Peyton makes a crucial point about the role of religion in establishing liberal arts colleges and also about the distinction between religion and theology. But what’s particularly challenging in terms of this chapter (or at least how I read it) is to think about how religions such as, say, Islam, in societies other than ours might inform the relationship between education and democratic practice, a shift in perspective that also involves some crucial terminological and conceptual differences. (So, for example, the distinction between theology--in Arabic: kalam--and religion is not quite the same in Islam as in the various Protestant denominations that have been so important in the history of American liberal arts colleges.)

Here it also may be helpful to clarify what I mean by “religion” (a tricky matter, to say the least). Rather than understanding it either as a set of doctrines or as the practices of believers, I follow Talal Asad in defining religion as a “discursive tradition,” a constantly evolving tradition shaped by the dialectical interplay between doctrine and practice. To return to the example of Islam: in contrast to the many folks now invested in declaring “what Islam is” once and for all, I’d argue that it’s less a fixed essence than a living tradition, one that captures what is imagined as continuous and unitary in dialectical relationship to those concrete articulations and practices by which it is transformed and adapted in different contexts for plural purposes.

In her post, Lisa writes that “Something about good political theorizing, enacting rather than just citing Socratic questioning as Nussbaum does, leads us to recognition of the plurality of legitimate modes of political being.” I couldn’t agree more, and Lisa puts the point much better than I could. If theorizing is understood as much as a practice of inquiry as a canon of particular answers, it ought to entail (among other things) examining and making explicit the assumptions and commitments that underlie our (and others’) everyday actions. Understood this way, it both presupposes and facilitates a kind of journey to a critical perspective from which we’re able to question commitments and assumptions that may have previously seemed natural or inevitable. Here “journeying” is both a metaphor for and a practice of travel to what Nietzsche called “the other shore,” a perspective from which it becomes possible to earn about other people and practices, gain critical purchase on one’s own, and identify patterns as well as discontinuities among different ways of living.

Lisa also asks about how this third-level understanding maps onto the distinction between the liberal state and the democratic ethos. If I understand the question correctly (and I may well be missing something), my sense is that, if Nussbaum had examined her own categories and assumptions, she might have recognized that she was using the same word, “democracy,” to describe phenomena we tend to associate with the liberal state as well as those better described in terms of democratic practices. Had she done so, she might have recognized not only that these are not the same things, but actually can (and at times do) work against one another. Disentangling them would, in turn, have enabled her to register the potential import of democratic practices (and their relationship to “liberal arts” education even outside formal institutions of education) in societies that are not governed by a liberal state, and may not even seek to establish one.


Milos Rastovic said...

I belong scholars who admire to Martha Nussbaum's works, especially this book for discussion Not for Profit. In the chapter "Citizens of the World," Nussbaum poses the crucial question about education and the contemporary world, i.e., the relationship between the liberal arts and "citizens of the world." I agree with Professor Morley's opinion that Nussbaum's suggestion is to show what is the role of humanities in the contemporary world. According to Professor Morley, Nussbaum implicates how we can live in the diverse and globalized world.
The liberal arts can make citizens more responsible for political voting. Political voters are aware of different languages in different regions, histories, traditions and religions. I agree with Roxanne that Nussbaum understands religion as a "litmus test for the kind of tolerance a 'citizen-of-the-world education' should produce." From my perspective, through religion we can become aware of differences among natioanal borders and people in general.