Monday, August 1, 2011

Wrap-Up and Next Steps

Stefan's last comment provides a great starting point for our final week of VRG discussion before the panel at October's APT meeting.  He writes:

"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."

What do you think?


Peyton Wofford said...

Nussbaum does indeed ignore the larger problem, but she does so with two possible reasons in mind. First, in the vein of some deliberative democrats (and even Machiavelli in the Discourses for a reference I’m more familiar with), consensus is neither possible nor desirable. Total harmony, consensus (especially on metaphysical foundations) are not the goal. Rather than requiring a common foundation, Nussbaum takes disagreement and disjunction as a given and focuses on things that must, for practical purposes, be codified or at least tentatively put into mission statement/policy form. Second, she skirts the issue of prerequisites because her work on capabilities covers the topic at length. Things like life, play, and bodily integrity would certainly qualify.


Howard Lubert said...

First, I would like to thank our various participants for their remarkable dedication to our first VRG venture. I regret that I was unable to participate sooner, but travel and various other matters prevented me from reading NFP until just a few weeks ago, and I’m only now caught up with the invited posts and the numerous comments they elicited.

Stefan’s comment points to a problematic tension between study of the humanities—which for argument’s sake I assume facilitates a more open, democratic politics—and a political culture that seems in many ways to be uninterested, even hostile, to that very exercise. A number of the comments have rightly noted that popular culture is not necessarily or always subversive of democratic ideals. Indeed, there can be a tendency toward nostalgia, to assuming that popular culture today is more degraded and intolerant compared to previous eras. That, as Ed and others note, is erroneous. In many ways popular culture today embraces norms that are more democratic, more egalitarian, and yes, more “empathetic” than the culture that we might identify with, say, late 19th-century America.

Still, I am sympathetic to RB’s claim that there is much about popular culture today that seems particularly opposed to democratic flourishing. I see the tension between popular culture and a more humanistic democracy arising in two ways. First, there are various aspects of our culture that strike me as particularly resistant, if not hostile to, study of the humanities and the democratic ethos that Nussbaum (and others) want to promote. Our culture glorifies the private market; it measures success—and too often one’s “value” as a citizen—by one’s wealth; it prioritizes consumerism and instant gratification; it glorifies technology (another measure of value and success); it is deeply religious in ways that is often rigid and not self-reflective; and it is often anti-intellectual.

I realize that these aspects of our culture are not new; it might well be the case that some or all of them are less severe than they once were. But they remain sufficiently strong to pose serious threats to the humanities. The conundrum is how to make an argument for the humanities in a culture that seems so predisposed to perceive them as either useless, too expensive, or dangerous. In this sense I see value in Nussbaum’s approach, i.e., ignoring in NFP the normative claim for the humanities and seeking instead to invoke the “language of the market” to justify study of the humanities (though as many have noted, a more persuasive case for their “value” needs to be made).

(Continued in the next comment…)

Howard Lubert said...

Second, I perceive tension between culture and the humanities in the rapid corporatization of the university. At my University faculty have been encouraged to speak of our students as “consumers”; faculty have little say in how the university is run—even to the point of classroom design. In some classrooms teachers have no choice but to use “technology” (e.g., powerpoint) in their classrooms, as blackboards go the way of the dinosaur. Glitz seems to be of primary importance, regardless of usefulness (or harm). TVs, the internet, cell phones—all this technology is in my opinion a huge distraction to the students. It’s always been difficult to get students to focus on their studies; I think today that task is all-the-more-difficult. There are simply too many distractions, and universities, in order to “keep up” and appear competitive, seem caught in an endless effort to show that they are as wired-in and “hip” as the next school. Challenging students to read carefully and to question assumptions in a seminar (or seminar-like) atmosphere is simply not sexy. And it doesn’t sell; that is, it doesn’t attract customers.

So, what are “the political and institutional prerequisites for democratic humanism to flourish?” Stefan has suggested—and I agree—a renewed public commitment to the university, including study of the humanities. That might mean changing the culture so that parents and students are less concerned with the recreational facilities and more concerned with academics, but I have no idea how to do that. It also means more public funding. But how can we pull this off in a time of economic belt-tightening, when the humanities seems “dull” and obsolete, and in a culture that associates public expenditures and administrators with redundancy and inefficiency? Indeed, as Stefan points out, even Nussbaum seems to embrace this cultural disdain for public bureaucrats.

Ed helpfully asks, “Could it really be the case that the democratic transformation of the university transforms everything except the way we teach the humanities?” That question leads me to my final thought. If the “old” way of teaching the humanities leaves increasing numbers of students feeling alienated, then what pedagogical practices might we employ that will foster the kind of democratic norms that Nussbaum and others here have talked about? One idea that comes to mind is service learning. How might we use service learning as a way to revive study of the humanities (and political theory in particular)? Can service learning be a way to link the humanities with a more robust public sphere? I may be wrong, but I don’t recall Nussbaum discussing service learning. I’d be interested to hear what others have to say here.

Sorry for the long comment, and rant.

stefan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stefan said...

In the spirit of self-criticism, I wonder if my framing of "the" problem as the privatization of the academy short-circuits efforts to make the broad-based appeal for the humanities that I desire. Perhaps "privatization" is as much a cliche or boogeyman as "tenured radicals"? Perhaps making democracy safe for the humanities requires a less Manichean worldview than my default position, something more along the lines of Gibson-Graham?