Philosophy instructors are perhaps at their best constructing and analyzing arguments, offering objections, and raising doubts about philosophical positions. This is very important and is essential to an education in the humanities. As Nussbaum puts it, "Knowledge is no guarantee of good behavior, but ignorance is a virtual guarantee of bad behavior (p. 81)." However, if this is all we do, then it seems to me that we have failed to advance from a mere education in the humanities to a humanistic education.
In my view, a humanistic education must not merely address how students think, though it must address that, but it must also engage the emotions and even the character of students. And my hunch is that this is something we (and I'm including myself here) are often not very skilled at doing. I must admit that when I seek to address the emotions of my students, or to encourage them to value and seek to acquire some particular virtue, I feel a little bit uncomfortable. Part of the challenge, I think, is to move beyond our comfort zones in this area and advocate certain human values discussed in Nussbaum's book such as respect, compassion, equality, and responsibility. Regarding this last value, I appreciated the following quotation from p. 54: "When people see their ideas as their own responsibility, they are more likely, too, to see their deeds as their own responsibility." A humanistic education will help students connect these two realms of life- their thoughts and their actions.
Here are some initial thoughts regarding how to go about humanistically educating students, drawn from Nussbaum's book as well as some of my own experiences:
- We should encourage our students to engage in Socratic self-examination, not just about their beliefs, but about other aspects of their character as well (pp. 47-51).
- We should seek to develop the "narrative imagination" of our students. This includes cultivating sympathy and the ability to imagine what it might be like to be in another person's shoes who is very different from oneself (pp. 95-96). In a philosophy class this might include the reading of the right kind of fiction or history, or the viewing of an appropriate film. This engages students at an emotional level which may then reinforce what they are thinking about more abstractly in class. Most students don't get the emotional charge some of us do when reading Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, or _______ (insert favorite philosopher here)!
- From my experience, a deeper discussion of particular virtues can be an effective and enjoyable way to seek to accomplish some of the goals of a humanistic education. I've used White's Radical Virtues in the past to foster this sort of discussion. White's book also nicely includes a discussion between each virtue and some contemporary moral issue (courage--masculine ideal, pacifism; temperance--environmentalism; justice--social justice; compassion--animal liberation; wisdom--multiculturalism). I've found that discussing what it means to be courageous, wise, compassionate, temperate, and just to be better than a protracted discussion of the categorical imperative or social contract theory.
- I've found that offering students a way to implement some of the material in their lives can be helpful. For example, when I teach Singer's argument that we're obligated to donate money to famine relief, most of my student are not yet convinced. However, I find that they are open to performing other actions, which I describe in class, such as visiting the Hunger Site; taking part in the ONE Campaign; or assisting the world's poor not by donating to Oxfam, but giving to Kiva.
- As a final suggestion, the development of philosophy courses that include a service learning component might help accomplish the sort of education I'm discussing in this post, and which Nussbaum is advocating as well.
The purpose of our examination is not to know what virtue is, but to become good...otherwise the inquiry would be of no benefit.------------------------
If readers are interested in offering some comments related to the above, perhaps specific pedagogical practices aimed at a humanistic education rather than a mere education in the humanities is a topic worth discussing. Or maybe a discussion of some more general questions might be helpful, such as: Should philosophy instructors (and others in the humanities) be seeking to foster certain moral virtues in their students? What are the advantages of this? The dangers? Why are we hesitant to do this? If we decide to do this, which values should we emphasize?