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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.


Lisa Ellis said...

Among the many important ideas in Bruce's post, I want to highlight his challenge to us in the humanities: how much difference could we really make were our status and funding to be restored to earlier levels? We've had the dubious advantage of weakness, which has allowed us to presume that most of the problem with humanities education is in the declining institutional support. But, Bruce insists we consider, might there not also be substantive, sociological challenges that our present weakness serves only to mask?

I do not entirely agree with Bruce that popular culture discourages the kind of committed critical thinking that we have agreed in earlier threads is necessary to both the good life and to successful democratic society. Yes, pervasive distractions discourage sustained attention to anything (and kudos to Bruce for including us in this critique). Yes, our political discourse and media culture inherently advantages simple messages and messages that gratify our most infantile, even reptilian, instincts. But there are aspects of popular culture that pull us in wholly new but not unsophisticated directions. New media and new practices of governance are expanding the sphere of experts to include people from many more walks of life. These uncertified participants can have huge effects (not that we always approve them), as examples such as Wikileaks and Anonymous as well as--to take an even more contentious example--the anti-GMO European publics.

So I wholly endorse Bruce's challenge: how, really, could we make a difference? And I repeat what I said last month: we need to follow Locke's example, updated for today's environment, and find ways to engage the full force of our intellectual resources in the public sphere.

Wingenbach said...

Setting the study of the humanities against the power of popular culture strikes me as misguided, unless "the humanities" means only the study of difficult, mostly canonical, largely philosophical texts. And even if we accepted this narrower definition, the difficulty of these texts is often a product of our distance from another popular culture. Shakespeare wasn't difficult for the masses of the Elizabethan period, Homer was accessible to all the Greeks. The objects studied in Art History courses were largely intended for a broad audience. Democracy in America was a best-seller in France and America. It is true that contemporary students must work quite hard to understand these materials, and that work surely has benefits for their ability to think rigorously. But the fact remains that much of what we study now as "high culture" is the popular culture of someone else.

It may be that our popular culture is particularly pernicious, though that seems the lament of intellectuals of every era! But it must also be the case that the study of that same culture is the province of the humanities, at least if the humanities are needed for democracy. Which is more useful to democratic citizenship in a media saturated world: skills in visual literacy or the capacity to read Aristotle? expertise in media analysis or familiarity with Shakespeare? I realize we shouldn't have to choose, but if we did it isn't obvious to me that a humanities curriculum that emphasized visual media studies and popular culture would be less valuable to democracy than a humanities curriculum that emphasized philosophical analysis and canonical texts. If our defense of the humanities is grounded in the skills it fosters (critical thinking, sophisticated analysis, ethical reasoning, intercultural competence, etc.), I've little doubt students can develop these skills in many ways, and it might be the case that an expansive understanding of the humanities that is inclusive of contemporary popular culture might better inculcate these abilities.

Moreover, our impulse to blame popular culture for a decline in the humanities betrays something of impulse to preserve the sort of elite cultural capital Bruce accurately identifies in the first part of his post. It may be the case that most of us teach students "whose habits of mind are all too often alien to the kind of serious, sustained attention to complex texts we are trying to foster." It is also probably the case that the "better ones find ways of giving such texts the attention they deserve." The challenge of our increasingly democratized system of higher education is precisely to reach the students who are not "the better ones," who are not from the same small portion of society that would have been enrolled in college in the halcyon days of the 1950's and 60's. How do we work with the rest of our students, who come to us not because of a burning desire to learn, or even to obtain the cultural capital needed to signal their class status, but because a BA has become the condition of admission to the middle class? We can recognize that they are ill-disposed by experience and temperament to appreciate the humanities, at the same time that we recognize they need the skills the humanities foster more than most. So how do we develop more creative pedagogies to reach these students "where they are" and move them to where we think they need to be? I think working on answers to that question, thinking about ways to make the humanities attractive to the students who don't already see them as a source of cultural capital, has to be a central part of any defense of the humanities as central to democracy.

RBDouglass said...

I take the point that the texts we today are inclined to privilege in our teaching sometimes had their origin in the popular culture of another era. But only some of them; others were addressed mainly to elite audiences. And even if that were not true, it is hardly every expression of popular culture that attracts our attention, much less our respect. We can debate endlessly about why it is that some texts have been selected (and others haven't been), but unless one is utterly cyncical about the process by which this has occurred, I think it must be conceded that to some extent it is the quality of the works in question that makes us treat them with the respect they typically get in our classes. And it has been my experience as a teacher that part of the reason for the difficulty students have in grasping what these texts have to offer is their quality, in a variety of different senses. They are put off, in other words, by the fact that it takes real effort to understand what these texts are saying.

I also grant that our remoteness from the historical circumstances in which these texts were created adds to the difficulty of appreciating them. But I don't think that is the root of the problem. I myself always emphasize historical context in teaching texts, and I do find that this helps students to appreciate what the texts have to offer. But only somewhat. Students have to be willing to grapple with difficult concepts as well, and it seems obvious to me that much about our popular culture ill prepares them for that task.

In proposing that our popular culture is problematic, I did not not mean to suggest that all of it has that character. I think you will see that my post bears that out. But I do believe that much of the popular culture is worrisome. To illustrate, let me offer this example. I have a daughter who is a print journalist. She tells me that for some time now journalism schools have been teaching print journalists (not to speak of other kinds of journalists) to avoid using "big" (not to speak of strange) words. Why? Because they are off-putting to the general public. So if you examine newspapers today, you will see that more and more that is what they are doing (following the lead of USA TODAY). The consequence is that it has become increasingly difficult to discuss complex issues in our public life in an intelligent way. That's what I have in mind, and I don't think it helps the democratic cause to deny that things of this sort are part of what popular culture involves in our time.

Wingenbach said...

I agree with your assertion that the tenor of contemporary popular culture makes it difficult to discuss complex issues in our public life in an intelligent way. I'm not convinced that this is a new issue. I don't think we could point to many periods in democratic history during which popular culture (consumed by the masses rather than the elite) would have contributed to such discussion. The partisan newspapers of the early American republic were worse than anything we see today. The penny dreadfuls of the 19th century were hardly edifying (Dickens aside). The comedies of classical Greece were filled with jokes about genitals and flatulence, and the public oratory of the Athenian assemblies of the 5th and 4th centuries were as much spectacle and ridicule as elevated debate. Some of that work rose above its context and became part of our contemporary humanities curriculum, as you rightly point out. And likely some of our contemporary popular culture will do the same.

But the premise I find problematic (and it may not be yours but I don't think it is uncommon) seems to pit popular culture against democracy, and to further assert that this tension is somehow new. I'm not sure the first claim is true, unless by democracy we mean elevated discussion of complex issues, a vision of democracy that is potentially inegalitarian. I'm mostly convinced the second claim is false, and that those who were most concerned about democracy in times past were largely uninterested in the diversions of the masses. That we worry now about its dangerous impact on citizenship is a testament to our expanded polity. But that expansion, I would argue, means we have to think about humanities education, the goals of citizenship, and popular culture in different ways.

I think the tension reflects our unease with the democratization of higher education. When a liberal arts degree was the province of the rarefied elite, those students arrived well-prepared to delve deeply into the complex texts of the canon. They were uncorrupted by the popular culture of the masses, and would go on to govern these masses in a responsible, thoughtful manner (or so the story goes). The democratization of higher education renders the population of students less immune to the pernicious influence of popular culture, not because popular culture has become that much worse but because so many more students from so many more social classes can attend. This was, in essence, Allan Bloom's complaint 25 years ago: the new students that accompanied the great expansion of higher education in the 1970's and 1980's were dramatically different from the small elite amongst which he had learned and whom he wanted to teach. His solution was to find the rump elite and save them from corruption, so that they might somehow save the rest of us from the barbarism of a declining society. Bloom can make this argument, but those of us who believe the democratization of higher education is a good thing for social justice and democracy should not make the same complaint.

If democracy is going to be inclusive and citizenship meaningful for at least a plurality of Americans, then we need to sort out how the humanities will help our rapidly expanding student population become democratic citizens. Most of us are not teaching those who will govern, or be consulted by those who govern, or produce cultural artifacts that will influence governance. Most of us are teaching students who come to college because a degree is the condition for a decent job. Their engagement with democracy is likely to be fleeting, intermittent, irregular. We want them to become better citizens, yes. But it is far from evident to me that the traditional humanistic approach common to the elite institutions at which most of us were trained will serve that goal, despite our genuine love of and faith in the power of these texts. Could it really be the case that the democratic transformation of the university transforms everything except the way we teach the humanities?

RBDouglass said...

Let me come at this in a somewhat different way, one more time. I consider myself a democrat, and I am not hankering for a return to any form of elitist politics. As a matter of fact, I think our problem today in the United States is to some degree that our politics is not democratic enough. The role that big money plays in our public life means that we are flirting with oligarchic tendencies. That is masked to some extent by the populist fireworks on the Right, but I think the real substance of our politics is in fact quite oligarchic.

I think democrats need always to recognize that there are better and worse forms of democratic politics. I would draw on a variety of considerations in developing that distinction, but one of them would certainly be the intellectual quality of public deliberation and debate. I do not assume that people's ability to take part in such deliberation and debate is a function of either education or class. Some of the most thoughtful things I have encountered in public life have come from people who are neither well-off nor highly educated; by the same token, some of the dumbest (and meaner) things have come from well-off, highly educated folks. So I am not assuming that either wealth or great learning is necessary to realize the better possibilities inherent in the democratic idea. But I don't think those possibilities are likely to be realized if we adopt an uncritical attitude toward the popular culture of our time.

In saying that I do not mean to suggest that popular culture must be subversive of the achievement of the ideals I associate with democracy. It's almost always a mixed bag, as I see the matter, and that remains true today. But my point all along has been to say that there is all too much about the popular culture of our time that inhibits and even actively discourages the realization of democracy's promise. To deny that, it seems to me, does no service to the democratic cause.

About pedagogy I could say much, but let me confine my remarks to just one observation. The great educational value of the humanities, in my experience, is that they challenge people to think more deeply and widen their horzizons. Whatever we do in our teaching, we shouldn't sacrifice that--not least for what it does for people's ability to contribute intelligently to public life.

stefan said...

I'd like to add my two cents on Nussbaum, though my thoughts are largely unrelated to the pop culture/democracy discussion above. As it happens my two cents are separable into two comments:

1) I think Nussbaum deserves more credit than she has been given so far (at least in the postings I've read...I missed a few though) in at least one respect. Several commentators have noted that she fails to highlight the (very real) tensions between democracy and the humanities. While I think there is something to this, I am also inclined to say that Nussbaum's book is the better for having ignored this tension. Consider the political statement she is trying to make. In a polity that already considers humanists to be lefty-elitist hacks, what sense would it make to accentuate the irrelevance of the humanities to democratic politics? Context matters a great deal here, and in America 2010 Nussbaum's "humanities-are-good-for-democracy-and-everyone-likes-democracy, right?" line seems eminently defensible.

Context isn't everything, however. Nussbaum's inability to look beyond her very specific context troubles me, to wit:

2) I find the final chapter in particular deeply flawed. Nussbaum's disdain for state bureaucrats, in contrast to her praise for UChicago alum-donors, is striking for its lack of political awareness. The penny-pinching state bureaucrats are penny-pinching because, to speak broadly, the rich UChicago donors (or their country club friends) have engineered a regressive system of taxation that impoverishes public education in the name of private gain. These donors prefer to have more disposable income so that they can contribute to their alma mater in the name of "culture" (using the humanities as a tool of distinction, as Bruce has already noted) while leaving public institutions high and dry. That Nussbaum simply accepts this state of affairs as a given, going so far as to praise the plutocrats while denigrating the public officials who must work within these constraints, is truly lamentable. More politics, Professor Nussbaum, please.

In sum then: Nussbaum's attention to the political climate justifies her approach (in part), but her attention to politics is only a half-measure that ignores a larger problem. Yes, we can and should talk about the utility of the humanities for democracy, but we should also be talking about the political and institutional prerequisites for democratic humanism to flourish. I think this is why her general strategy of "making the humanities safe for democracy" is a sound one, since only by establishing a consensus on that ground will enable us to challenge the increasing privatization of the academy.

Stefan Dolgert
University of Connecticut