If we do not insist on the crucial importance of the humanities and the arts, they will drop away, because they do not make money. They only do what is much more precious than that, make a world that is worth living in, people who are able to see other human beings as full people, with thoughts and feelings of their own that deserve respect and empathy, and nations that are able to overcome fear and suspicion in favor of sympathetic and reasoned debate (Nussbaum, Not for Profit, p. 143).
I always learn much from Nussbaum’s writings, and Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities is no exception. Like the earlier contributors, I’ve found this book to be timely. (My college is in the midst of a “program prioritization”, and it’s quickly become obvious that even -- especially? -- academics on my campus have real trouble describing to each other the value of what we do in not-solely-economic ways that can be useful for planning purposes.) I’ve also found the book to be thought provoking, inspirational in its scope, and maybe even a bit heroic in its mission.
Michael and Chris are right to clarify that the real subject is not humanities per se, but humanistic educations, and I’ll be using “humanities education” interchangeably with “humanistic education”. Most of us know very well that subjects can be taught, and learned, in ways that are rote, that discourage critical thinking, and that stunt rather than enrich imaginative and empathetic capacities. Nothing about the study of any particular subject necessarily leads to any specific affective or cognitive outcomes! So, I think that the book should really have been subtitled, “Why Democracy Needs the Humanities To Be Taught In Particular Ways”, though that presumes that they should be taught at all, which is precisely the point of contention.
(“Democracy”, by the way, is most clearly characterized on pages 24 – 25: a system in which people “hav[e] a voice in the choice of the policies that govern [their lives]”, in which there is “a strong role for fundamental rights that cannot be taken away from people by majority whim”. And “humanities” are those subjects that foster imagination, creativity, and rigorous critical thought, but even subjects in the natural sciences can include those “humanistic aspects” (p.2).)
Many of the thoughts, questions, and concerns that swarmed me as I finished the book have already been raised and explored by my fellow commentators, so I’ll toss out (in the sense of “present”, not “discard”) a couple of topics and questions that haven’t yet come up. That’s not to imply that the previously-raised topics have been exhausted, of course!
1. As I made my way through Nussbaum’s book, I wondered not just whether humanistic education is itself at risk, but whether democracy itself – or, less hyperbolically, democratic citizenship as an ideal – is at risk. Though I’m well aware of the futility of harkening back to some putatively Golden Age that never actually existed, I found myself thinking about some of the ways in which, in this country, we’ve seen a general retreat from public engagement of all sorts, and maybe even from the idea of a citizen as anything more than a once-every-other-year voter. Clearly there are many who have been happy to see that. But in any case, it’s worth thinking hard about the extent to which commitment to democratic ideals is, as Nussbaum fears, a form of mere “lip service” (p. 141). Nussbaum’s book is, it seems to me, as much a paean to the value of democratic citizenship as it is to the value of humanities education. So, even people who are indifferent about the latter should find the book a stirring defense of the former.
2. Speaking of non-existent Golden Ages, I can’t resist noting the interesting and depressing similarities between Nussbaum’s concerns and those conveyed by one of my favorites, John Stuart Mill. (As Nussbaum notes in the chapter, "Cultivating Imagination",) Mill was one of the most committed defenders of the kind of education that Nussbaum, too, advocates, and for similar reasons. In observing that there are some similarities in theme to an essay written roughly two centuries earlier, I don't mean to diminish the sense of urgency that Nussbaum brings to the conversation, but instead, I hope, to add to it.
In “Professor Sedgwick’s Discourse on the Studies at the University of Cambridge” (1835), Mill begins on a high note: “If we were asked for what end, above all others, endowed universities exist, or ought to exist, we should answer—To keep alive philosophy.” But he goes on to lament the “absence of enlarged and commanding views” in contemporary English society, a fault for which he suggests universities are at least partly culpable: “…Perhaps this degeneracy is the effect of some cause over which the universities had no control, and against which they have been ineffectually struggling. If so, those bodies are wonderfully patient of being baffled…. All is right so long as no one speaks of taking away their endowments, or encroaching upon their monopoly. - While they are thus eulogizing their own efforts, and the results of their efforts; philosophy—not any particular school of philosophy, but philosophy altogether—speculation of any comprehensive kind, and upon any deep or extensive subject—has been falling more and more into distastefulness and disrepute among the educated classes of England. Have those classes meanwhile learned to slight and despise these authorized teachers of philosophy, or ceased to frequent their schools? Far from it. The universities then may flourish, though the pursuits which are the end and justification of the existence of universities decay. The teacher thrives and is in honour, while that which he affects to teach vanishes from among mankind.”
3. It’s impressive to me that Nussbaum’s book itself manages to demonstrate several of the features that could be part of a humanities education. One of those features is especially related to the cultivation of imagination and moral sympathy: the careful interlacing of general claims and principles with the telling of individual narratives (by or about, e.g., Pestalozzi, Winnicott, and Tagore). While we'll want more empirical evidence of some of the causal claims than is found in the book, let’s say that the best case for humanities education requires telling the stories of particular people and the ways in which they have felt their lives enriched by humanities education. What does that mean for us as philosophy instructors? I’ll focus on what we can do in our courses; others have addressed and will address the equally pressing question of what we can do elsewhere.
We could help by, when appropriate, incorporating more writings from authors who straddle borders between philosophy and literature (Rebecca Goldstein, Richard Powers, and Colson Whitehead are contemporary US authors who come to mind) or between philosophy and autobiography. We could definitely help by continuing to resist pressures to increase class sizes, because the kind of “cottage” model that Nussbaum advocates fits poorly, it seems to me, with our actual “industrial” structures of class enrollment and teaching. And we could help by incorporating meta-level discussions into our conversations with students. Some of the most effective teachers I’ve seen – regardless of discipline – have been very explicit with their students about the fact that formal education is as much meta-cognitive (and I’d add, meta-affective) as it is cognitive. They have designed assignments that require students to reflect on themselves as learners, so that they can tell their own stories most effectively to audiences – including, perhaps, skeptical family members – who might need convincing of the not-solely-economic value of this sort of education.