To give the central argument in a nutshell – Nussbaum thinks that we are experiencing a crisis in the form of very great pressures to vocationalize education both at the compulsory and higher levels, and that these pressure are squeezing out the humanities. But education in the humanities, she thinks, plays a vital role in creating a citizenry that is capable of engaging in a fully responsible way in democratic institutions. It is through education in the humanities that we learn to understand and empathize with others – the humanities expand our imagination and help us to see the reasonableness of a great deal of disagreement on key questions. If the humanities are under threat, so is democracy itself – not necessarily the particular democratic forms, but the way that they are used by citizens.
I agree with a great deal of the argument, and think the book is terrific, and should be read widely. A lot of what I would have wanted to say has been covered already by the other participants, so I am going to restrict myself to two, rather disconnected, comments, neither of which is really new to the discussion.
The first concerns Nussbaum’s method of presentation. Nussbaum’s previous book (Liberty of Conscience) was on a topic that I have only a passing interest in. But the book brought the subject alive in a way that I wish more philosophers were capable of (I wish I were, for example). As in the current book, Nussbaum makes the argument by way of telling stories. I suspect that Nussbaum thinks that most of the interesting and true thoughts have already been thought by someone, and that it is really worth figuring out who thought them and how they said them. So in her previous book she makes an argument for a specific version of the principle of freedom of conscience by telling the story of Roger Williams, to whom she attributes (plausibly) a very similar version of the principle. We learn a piece of semi-lost history, and see that someone who inhabited a very different environment (and had neither tenure nor a reduced teaching load) developed a complex and sophisticated intellectual position through real engagement with his world.
The story-telling in Not for Profit is just as interesting. Nussbaum doesn’t just draw on, but tells us about, thinkers and actors like John Dewey, Rabindranath Tagore, Friedrich Froebel and Donald Winnicott. Rather than presenting them context-free, she shows how these insights were arrived at and seemed plausible in context. Like most other readers I am more or less familiar with the ideas of John Dewey, but to me the other three were just names that I vaguely associated with some sort of progressive tradition in education until reading her book. And I had no idea at all that Louisa May Alcott’s father was a progressive educator, and so progressive in other ways that he caused his own school to be closed down by admitting an African-American child. While the book is a defense of the humanities, it is also an illuminating story about the progressive tradition in education, a tradition that is much maligned, (often, as Nussbaum’s book shows, ignorantly) and continually under threat (An aside: I’m not convinced that the humanities are under special threat now compared with many other times in the past; but under threat they are).
My second comment is a sort of caution, not to Nussbaum, but to some of her likely readers in the academy. This theme has bubbled under the surface of some of the discussions of the book we’ve had here, but it is worth emphasizing. Nobody in the humanities should read Nussbaum’s book as a defense of the humanities in the state it is currently in. Far from it. Nussbaum has a very particular vision of what constitutes a healthy humanistic education. It is one in which Socratic method is deployed, in which the imagination is engaged, in which teachers aim to provide students with the resources necessary to think critically and constructively about important human problems, and prompt them to use those resources well. How much of this is (really) going on in teaching within Humanities departments in our universities and schools? It takes enormous skill and dedication to do this well, and our elite universities do very little to develop those skills or reward that kind of dedication in the teachers they employ. And what about our schools? I really do not believe (and nor do any of the teacher educators I know) that our schools of education are equipping prospective teachers with these skills, let alone that principals of the schools they end up teaching in have much of a clue that these are valuable skills, even if they had the power (which they rarely do) to reward dedicated practice of these skills.
In elite higher education institutions (by which I mean the 140 or so most selective undergraduate institutions – so including my own) the decline of the humanities has been relative, not absolute. Course loads for professors are lower than they were 40 years ago, and much lower than 80 years ago. My guess is that absolute numbers of faculty at such institutions are substantially higher than 40 years ago, and we know that the number of PhD-granting departments has grown, as have the numbers of PhDs and PhD students. The issue is that the social science and natural sciences faculties have reduced their teaching loads even more, and have much greater ability to secure funding from outside. Humanities faculty members tend to compare themselves with their more privileged colleagues rather than with their less privileged forebears. In fact, in my view, the only justification for having humanities faculty in publicly funded universities (and all elite colleges are publicly funded in various ways, including the private colleges) is the teaching function. Whereas faculty in the social sciences and sciences are contributing as researcher to collaborative projects that produce knowledge through their which can directly benefit society through application, we just don’t do that (linguistics is exempt from this charge, but its never been clear to me why linguistics is a humanities discipline). Most of our research contributes to the public good mainly by informing our teaching or that of others, or by serving as the basis for publicly-oriented communication. We had better be good teachers, then. If good humanities teaching is what Nussbaum thinks it is (and I think it is), then we should be paying a good deal more attention to developing the traits and skills needed to do it.
The humanities needs a public defense of the kind that Nussbaum gives it in her book. It also, in my view, needs the private constructive criticism that is implied (whether intended or not) by Nussbaum's articulation of a reachable ideal of humanistic education, which all of us should be putting substantial effort into achieving.