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.