Monday, September 27, 2010

Not For Profit Episode 8: Don't Be Complacent.

Like the other participants in the symposium, I am very enthusiastic about Martha Nussbaum’s newest book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.
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.


  1. Harry, thanks for a thoughtful post. Playing the 'devil's advocate,' I have a question (or two) Do you think that being dedicated to the importance of the Socratic method entails being committed to the humanities or can the Socratic method be taught independently of them. The reason that I ask this, is that at times it seems as if Socrates himself is critical of some of the thinkers we might want to include in the humanities as far as transmitting knowledge - his criticisms of Aristophanes and the Sophists for example. If I understand Nussbaum's position, she seems to be arguing that studying the humanities entails a certain recognition that cultural pluralism is to be recognized and defended. Additionally, is it not conceivable that the Socratic method (and the extension of our imaginative ability) can be taught without the humanities - simply as a stand alone methodology for solving problems? If this is the case, then one could promote critical thinking within an educational system driven solely by market concerns with a reduction in the humanities to pay for the extension of programs designed to meet the needs of the economic system. I guess to be blunt -does Nussbaum beg the question at a critical stage of her argument?

  2. Thanks Harry for the excellent big-picture interpretation, especially for your critical eye towards the current practices in the humanities.

    I am curious about your view that "the only justification for having humanities faculty in publicly funded universities... 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..."

    I would have thought that the immediate justification and the immediate benefit to society would be the intrinsic worth of great music, sculpture, dance, etc., great history, philosophy, literature, criticism, etc. A society without these things is, I take it (and, I take it, according to Nussbaum) deeply and irrevocably impoverished.

    To use one example, I should think that a great public institution such as UCLA or U of M would want to have someone like Martha Nussbaum on its faculty - someone who not merely teaches but researches, someone who not merely teaches but produces important humanistic works.

    I may have misunderstood you though. I thoroughly agree that we must be good teachers, and I agree that too many great research institutions leave that to graduate students who have little to no education in being good teachers.

    But I also firmly believe that 1) for many of us good teaching is not separate from being good scholars, artists and engaged intellectuals, and 2) the works of art, literature, history, philosophy, etc. are of deep and important value and benefit to society.

    I do know of some really excellent teachers who don't publish. I also know of some really excellent teachers who do, but who feel as though their scholarship is a necessary burden brought on by the professionalization of our disciplines. But in my experience, these folks are the exception rather than the rule. In addition, I think it is important to distinguish being a scholar and intellectual from being a producer of publications. I know plenty of top-notch philosophers (usually from a previous generation) who are true scholars and intellectuals who are up on their fields and whose knowledge of their field is necessary to their being excellent teachers, but who rarely publish.

    To use myself as an anecdote, I truly believe that I would not be half the teacher I am were I not regularly engaged in professional conferences, NEH institutes, journal refereeing and, yes, publishing original works in the history of philosophy. These pursuits not only inform and energize, they help me practice the kind of engaged dialogue with others that I strive to have with my students.

    I can't claim that my published work has the kind of importance I claim for work in the humanities here; it would express an inappropriate lack of humility. But if I didn't think it wasn't capable of work that had lasting and intrinsic value, and if I were honest, I would resign not only from publishing but from teaching.

  3. I want to pose a question that pertains directly to this discussion. Is Obama’s focus on educational competitiveness actually sounding the death knell of the liberal arts education focus that has (supposedly) characterized our educational system? It seems to me that the following initiatives supported by Obama actually will result in money that is presently being spent on teaching the humanities being shifted to teaching subjects associated with improving and maintaining economic competitiveness:
    1) Improving student education in math, science and technology. Although he stresses the importance of these subjects, I have not heard him defend a liberal arts core curriculum.
    2) Extending the school year by at least one month to reflect the increased amount of time students spend in school of those countries that are now paradigmatic of providing ‘competitive’ education. Does this not mean that we are viewing children more and more as potential supporters and contributors to the economic system and that their (our) worth is simply to be understood in economic terms of utility and efficiency? (I cannot help but think of Pink Floyd!!!)

    As many have recognized and reinforced in the discussion of Nussbaum, there is a close correlation between having a fundamental knowledge of the humanities and the health and viability of democratic institutions. But, it is clear that we do not have to have democratic institutions and some might argue that these types of institutions are, in fact, not necessary, and may even be a hindrance, to having a viable and healthy economic system that provides the goods and services that many think constitutes living a life of achievement and success (Weber’s 3 P’s). We have historical examples of individuals who are not committed to the viability and health of democratic institutions being able to gain and maintain power by simply promising to deliver a better quality of life regarding improving the development and availability of the goods and services associated with material acquisition and gratification. I would maintain that we see this type of thinking underlying the present political discourse in both major parties. I believe that Obama’s initiatives support the thesis that democratic instructions are not necessary except, possibly in the strictly political realm of electing those who represent us. It should be recognized that both Democrats and Republicans want the creation and distribution of wealth. They only differ in how to create it and how it should be distributed, but there seems to be no stated correlation between having social (non-political) democratic institutions and economics in their discussion of how to create wealth and distribute wealth. I doubt that members of both parties would support fully participatory democratic work environments. However, without this discussion the consequences outlined by Nussbaum and other commentators in this blog will come to pass and democratic institutions will become a thing of the past (assuming we have had them at some time in our history and that is debatable). This directly relates to Harry's second concern - what should constitute an education in the humanities. Nussbaum focuses on Socrates and critical thinking, but is there more? Or, even, is this enough?

    As an aside, I hope that more people will start to contribute to the discussion of Nussbaum’s book and the threads being posted.

  4. Responding to Becko (almost certainly won't get to John's points till tomorrow). I agree that great art, literature, etc, have intrinsic value. But I don't think that is what justifies governments spending money either on their production or on educating people to appreciate them. The government should be spending money in ways that enhance people's lives, and people's lives are enhanced by great art etc only if they have the facility to interact with and appreciate it. Hence the centrality of the teaching function. Now, some people producing research who are indifferent or uninterested teachers nevertheless contribute to the teaching function by producing research that is worth teaching about or influences work that is worth teaching about. And some people, of course, produce work of intrinsic value that contributes directly to benefiting the people who consume it.

    So I do not mean that public funding should not be available for research -- I agree that high quality teaching is facilitated both by the teacher doing research and by other people doing it. But that research does not produce social benefits absent the teaching function, which is what justifies public funding.

    Is that clearer?

  5. I liked your post, Harry.

    I agree that we're not doing a good enough job ourselves in teaching or in training teachers, and that this is the primary justification for funding us.

    I was a little unclear how you think the Humanities are under threat. I take your point that the Humanities are declining only in a relative way - as you point out, teaching loads and time for research are, at least at many institutions, as good or better than they have been in the past, even if they're much less good than in the sciences (and I take it your point is that this asymmetry is justified in part by the comparative lack of public goods the humanities produces - we're lucky if we have a Peter Singer once in a long while - but maybe a persuasive argument that convinces people of a morally good outcome is not an example of what you mean by a public good, even if it makes the world a better place. At any rate, such cases are rare in the humanities).

    Is the point just that students are no longer required or encouraged to take as many humanities courses, and so they're missing out on a crucial part of their education? Or is it that you see the (comparative) difficulty in getting funding/resources/etc for research in the humanities is bad (though this seems a bit in tension with your other remarks). Is it that Humanities faculties are shrinking in absolute numbers, too?

    Or something else?

    Incidentally, I assume you'd agree that in sciences where there's not much payoff for public goods (e.g., certain areas of astronomy, pure mathematics, some parts of paleobiology, etc.) these fields are also primarily justified by their teaching role. My sense is that in the sciences, those who work on the more "theoretical", less applied parts of science sometimes feel like they have an analogous problem to justifying their role, in getting as much money for research, etc.

  6. I'll repeat a comment I wrote elsewhere, though in response to this discussion and a third:

    'The arts are the most intimate empiricism. Specifics are prized over generalizations. The word "individual" is a mass noun. By the logic of the arts a written description of any single human being should seem as irreducible to you as you are to yourself. In the world of experience, ideas aren't the manifestation of the ideal they're the vulgarization of life lived.'

    That's the contradiction between philosophy as now practiced and the humanities. Defenses of the humanities by philosophy professors are defenses of generalities because it's the only language you know. That's a loss.

    Reflection in and with the act of writing (writing as literature) is engaging with questions regarding your choices of terms as structure: It's a professor asking "Why does my writing read like an end of year financial report? What is the sensibility, what are the values made manifest in it?" Literature is the ironization and examination of intuition, of the sort Derrida does so gracelessly (at least in translation).

    Literature is writing to describe the writer writing and his or her perceived relations to the world. Art isn't "creative" it's observational. Creativity is no more than "inventiveness". Inventiveness is the Cartesian model of art, the nature of the "I" is assumed. Cartesian art is illustration, describing assumptions.

    "Science is the study of facts and philosophy the study of values. Conflating the two in favor of facts, values become assumed. Values assumed all questions are seen as those of expertise. Expertise as the goal terms of measurement are assumed. Curiosity is defined by the frame, values by the frame moral worth by the frame."

    A philosopher engaged in the study of externalities ignores the observing observer, himself, imagining that he's on solid ground. His values become assumptions.
    What does it mean that the language used to discuss rather than describe individual experience is now so bureaucratic in form? What are the values manifest in the architecture of contemporary academic language?

    Grammar has no moral presence in the world, but every speech act has a moral aspect. The words "I love you" have a very specific very limited set meanings but the moment they're spoken meanings multiply towards infinity: tone, cadence, context. And the speaker's understanding of them may well be wrong, ask your ex. Literature catalogues those infinite possibilities. Philosophy ignores them in favor of grammar and "ideas".


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