Part One: Imaginative Capacities
Like most philosophers reading this book, I found myself nodding in agreement over and over again regarding the indispensability of a Socratic education. But I wonder whether Nussbaum's other central pillar of an education for democracy - imaginative capacity - is in some sense even more crucial and in more danger of disappearing. I wonder too, if it isn't the area over which the humanities and arts have the strongest claim.
Arguably, the mathematical, natural and social sciences are practiced best when practiced Socratically. In addition, the mathematical, natural and social sciences are exceptionally well-placed to engage students in activities that require independence, creativity and problem-solving. If the humanities and arts are being slashed at the expense of other programs that are regarded as more valuable, defending the arts and humanities as foundational for critical skills may not be enough (not that Nussbaum does that). In addition, in my experience, students who enter college with impoverished critical skills are nevertheless able to acquire them if given the right sort of higher education.
On the other hand, the arts and humanities are arguably in the best position to cultivate the ability to imaginatively project beyond the self and the present. One might say something stronger than this - that while this capacity is not the exclusive domain of the arts and humanities, it simply cannot be developed independently of it. I think this is true. In addition, in my experience, students who enter college with impoverished imaginative skills are rarely able to develop them further in even the best institutions of higher learning. I have suggested in the past that the explanation for this cognitive - some skills, if not developed at an early enough age simply atrophy.
Furthermore, if we still wrestle with the kind of passivity that motivated the great educational reformers to whom Nussbaum introduces us, and I think we do, it is the capacity for conscious, imaginative activity that is the key. Passivity is so corrosive because it strips thinkers of their agency - it weakens their ability to direct their attention and make choices about what to think about and how to think about it. In fact, it corrodes this ability to such a degree that among the things one who lacks it cannot imagine is that one can even exercise choice in such matters. As the late David Foster Wallace writes in his brilliant commencement speech, the inability to make personal, intentional, conscious choices about how to directs one's thoughts places a person in "an imprisonment so complete that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up" (This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, New York: Little, Brown and Company: 2009, page 32.)
Finally, the critical skills embodied in and developed by Socratic activity are at best hollow and at worst dangerous when not developed in dynamic interaction with the development of the kind of projective imagination cultivated by the arts and humanities. We wish to admire Socrates, not the Sophists. One thinks of current political figures whose argumentative skills are finely honed but whose conscious compassion and empathy are, to say the least, stunted. Perhaps this is the key to earlier concerns in this blog about the many examples of highly educated demagogues.
Part Two: Who, Specifically, is Behind All This?
There is no doubt that, as Nussbaum puts it, democratic education is on the ropes. The systematic dismantling of the arts and the humanities is only the beginning of a wholesale destruction of the democratic model of higher education for the purpose of political expediency and perceived economic gain. But who is doing this? As Nussbaum points out, the business world has been telling us for years that college graduates do not have the necessary skills for the workplace. Administrators hear that. But what they refuse to hear is that the skills they are looking for are: creativity, flexibility, resliance, precision, independence, and intellectual integrity. They aren't looking for flat-footed, instrumentalized "job skills," built for "the common man" in the "practical," "real world." It's not educators engaging in this kind of anti-intellectual, empirically baseless speculation. It's not the business community urging liberal arts colleges to become vocational institutions. And it is not educators or business people who are justifying the existence of higher education by re-casting the sciences along wholly pragmatic lines while using the same to sacrifice the arts and humanities. Nussbaum's example of the University of Chicago's Viewbook being scrubbed of all images of students sitting, thinking and reading in favor images of gleaming laboratories was haunting - not because it came as a shock but because precisely the same thing happened at my own small liberal arts college. The people who are driven by these anti-intellectual, short-term, callous motives and who are doing the hands-on work of dismantling higher education are administrators (obviously not all of them - there are many who fight the good fight). They are the fastest growing group in higher education, the group with the highest increases in salary, and, some have argued the main reason for rising costs in education.
One thing practical we can do right now is end administrative bloat.