First, I'd like to thank Martha Nussbaum for putting her considerable rhetorical skill, argumentative ability, and professional reputation behind Not for Profit. This is the book that I suspect academic humanists have waited a long time for: a spirited, lucid, and accessible defense of their profession that directly confronts the challenges the humanities have faced over the past few decades, particularly at the higher education level. It is thus a worthy successor to her earlier book, Cultivating Humanity.
Since ISW is a philosophy teaching blog, I'd like to focus on two concerns that relate to the responsibilities of philosophers as humanistic educators. The first is philosophy's relationship to other humanities disciplines; the second, philosophy's reputation not for building human knowledge, but for destroying it.
Reading Not for Profit, I kept thinking about how often I feel compelled to defend philosophy, but how rarely I feel compelled to defend the humanities. Indeed, I occasionally forget that philosophy is typically classified with the humanities disciplines. In some respects, this reflects what I would call a mild estrangement between academic philosophy, especially as practiced in the English-speaking world, and the other humanities disciplines. This is a familiar point that I need not belabor (for some earlier discussion, see Menand on the humanities and philosophy's relation to other disciplines) But suffice to say that in my experience, Anglo-American philosophers often see eye to eye more with their colleagues in the natural or social sciences than with those in literature, history, or the arts. With the humanities imperiled by the instrumentalist or economic growth-based approach to education whose limitations Nussbaum so vigorously criticizes, it's natural for humanities disciplines to turn against one another in the fight for scarce resources. (Nussbaum's report of a religious studies department being told that, unlike philosophy, religious studies is not "core", exemplifies this potential antagonism. [pp. 123-24]) Shall we teach students composition or foreign languages or critical thinking? Will students study Plato, Proust, or Picasso? Such questions imply that the humanities are merely a collection of disciplines with disparate aims, as if the study of Plato, Proust, an Picasso do not serve some definable 'humanistic' aim.
Not for Profit thus leads me to conclude that the humanities — or more exactly, its practitioners — need to develop, articulate, and defend a shared vision of what the humanities are for. Nussbaum has, in my estimation, done much of this work for us, ably highlighting how democratic societies and the individuals that inhabit them flourish only when their 'technical' education is complemented by a 'civic' education. Roughly speaking, Nussbaum powerfully reminds us, in the spirit of Socrates and Aristotle, that an education that helps us achieve our ends is useless if our ends are not worth achieving or if we lack any capacity to rationally and imaginatively appraise those ends. What good is the 'American dream,' Nussbaum writes, for people with limited, imaginatively cramped dreams? (p. 137)
For humanists, we need to show greater solidarity in defending and promoting this vision. I'm thinking of solidarity both in horizontal and vertical terms. Horizontally, we philosophers working at the higher education level need to collaborate more with historians, literary theorists, and the like in other departments, showing how the humanities are indispensable, and despite our differing disciplinary methodologies and predilections, we are nevertheless allies in a common cause of humanistic education. Vertically, we need to show greater solidarity with humanities educators at the K-12 level, coming to their aid when foreign language and music programs are put on the chopping block. And we need to collaborate with the informal mechanisms of humanities education — museums, libraries, granting agencies, arts organizations, and the like — so that humanities education does not become equated with *academic* humanities education.
Now my second concern, which is more internal to philosophy as such: Philosophy's role in civic education is (unsurprisingly) most prominent in what Nussbaum sees as the development of a capacity for argument. And I share with her the belief that absent some facility for argument, students are left too easily influenced, too susceptible to the claims of authority, and hamstrung in their ability to critically engage their own beliefs and the beliefs of others. And philosophy is distinctive among humanities disciplines in highlighting the common logic of arguments and making the development of a capacity for argument an explicit aim of its pedagogy. It's thus hard to imagine any version of humanities education oriented toward what Nussbaum calls "Socratic values" that does not include philosophy and yet expects to produce a democratic citizen: "active, critical, curious, capable of resisting authority and peer pressure." (p. 72)
The underside of this is that philosophy seems often to result not in improvements in students' beliefs, values, or understanding, but a kind of skepticism, bordering on nihilism. As we've discussed here at ISW before, students learning moral philosophy too often leave their studies as moderately sophisticated moral relativists. Many of my students report that philosophy is skepticism for its own sake, a set of intellectual tools to demonstrate the folly or inadequacy of various systems of belief, and as Mike once observed, it seems common for students to leave philosophy with the impression that it's all questions, no answers. I once had a teacher tell me that philosophy is "the machete of academic disciplines." An apt metaphor in some respects: Philosophy tries to cut big ideas down to size, uproot them, and then see which of them can withstand scrutiny. Yet whatever a machete's virtue at clearing the landscape, it doesn't plant seeds that lead to new growth.
My worry, then — and note that this is no criticism of Nussbaum — is that philosophy's penchant for relentless criticism too often succeeds too well in engendering skepticism in students. Democracies need skepticism, but wither from cynicism. And my suspicion is that we philosophers produce more cynics than skeptics — more reflexive, knowingly dismissive postmodern cynics with a contempt for the patient, probing search for the truth than thoughtful, humble inquirers who use argument as a tool to gain understanding and wisdom instead of the 'upper hand' in rhetorical exchanges.
So I fear that philosophy educators too often create clever citizens instead of wise ones. And this makes philosophy's role in the civic education Nussbaum defends regrettably narrow: the skeptical 'not so fast!' discipline that destroys knowledge without putting something in its place. Future discussions of how philosophy serves the humanistic ends of a democratic society should, in my estimation, think carefully about how philosophy can be constructive, instead of merely destructive.