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.