Saturday, September 18, 2010

Not For Profit, Episode Six: Passivities

Nussbaum's book is rich with ideas, examples and arguments. I'd like to focus on just two things, though if I had the time and the space, I've no doubt I could get wonderfully lost in a dialogue with and about this book. I will do a two part post. First, I'd like to focus on the notion of passivity and the role of imaginative capacities in education. Second, I'd like to suggest some conclusions I have drawn concerning administrative choices in higher education

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.


  1. Becko, I sure enjoyed your take on Chapter 7. I think your remarks on the Humanities and imagination insightful, but I want to limit my comments to the second point on who is to blame for democratic education’s precarious position in the U.S. and the rest of the world. Your point on administrators is no doubt accurate, but let’s think about what they are up against too. Professor Nussbaum begins her manifesto with a deeply troubling and important portrait of how higher education is being used to turn students into useful machines for a global corporate economy. Administrators are, at best, merely reacting – passively as you note – to these market demands (as are parents, politicians, policymakers, etc). Tony Judt has described the victory of economism – a totalitarianism of free market thinking – over social democracy. He noted how students today cannot grasp the thinking associated with Fascism and Communism in the twentieth century where humans were willing to sacrifice themselves to self-abnegating ideals. This is interesting. What is troubling is that, as Judt notes, neither can students today conceive of taking any ideas seriously enough to imagine them changing their lives. This betokens a deeper passivity than perhaps what you noted.
    Who is to blame? Well, I’m inclined to start with economists in positions of power who regarded things like pollution and natural resources as mere externals to the needs of the market. Only recently have these teachers and policymakers recognized the perils of climate change are real. Or, rather, that these perils are now expensive enough for them to begin to worry about them (in the language of crisis and catastrophe no less). Think of what it means to have a Larry Summers at the helm of Harvard symbolizes.
    I’m also inclined to blame the Humanities to a certain extent, and I do so while accepting Professor Nussbaum’s claims about their potential for democratizing future generations. But Humanities do have authoritarian strains that are anti-democratic and cannot be ignored. There is also a passivity about these subjects that takes the form of conservatism. While they extol the virtues of tradition, they also rest assured of their continued cultural importance, even while that culture is advancing a marketplace mentality for ethical thinking that effaces historical sensitivity. For a constellation of fields that have one of their collective historical feet in the rhetorical tradition, the Humanities have not been very good at defending themselves in what should be their home turf, the university. Think of how forms of thought and life like ethics and communication have been ghettoized in departments of philosophy and English. “Ethics across the curriculum” and other such shibboleths barely hide the way this mode of reflection and imagination have been devalued on our campuses.
    Finally, perhaps there are larger and more entrenched forces at work. What can we say about the tenets of a pragmatic culture that defines truth in terms of “cash value” and is guided by a suspicion of abstract thought? In years past, this pragmatism prepared American philosophy departments for the purported scientific rigors of Logical Positivism/Empiricism and the hegemony of analytic philosophy. Have there been larger cultural consequences?
    However we come to illuminate the aetiology of the problem, the time for the Humanities to organize and respond to the challenges to their enterprises has clearly arrived. Step one is to argue for its consonance with democratic thinking and action, and to democratize itself accordingly. What is needed is some sort of very large conference to bring the various fields and orientations together to devise strategy, organize curricular reforms, and, in the name of academic freedom, begin to implement this vision.

  2. Becko,

    Great post! On two thoughts of yours:

    a. Philosophy and the "imaginative capacities": I actually think we tend to shortchange philosophy's ability to enhance the imagination relative to other arts and humanities. A lot of the best philosophical thinking involves noticing alternatives that have been overlooked within an existing debate, or seeing how two seemingly incompatible claims might be reconciled. Granted, the imagination in question is more abstract than concrete (in contrast to the arts, say). But we should play up philosophy's distinct contribution to developing students' imaginative capacities.

    b. Couldn't agree more about the simpleminded thinking that is undermining the humanities. The reasoning seems no better than "we need business executives, so let's support programs in business (at the expense of the humanities)." There's plenty of corroboration for your claims about the value of the humanities in the workplace. The AACU conducted a survey of employers in 2007. The results:
    Employers interviewed for this survey reject the trend toward narrow technical training at the college level; they believe that, to succeed in the global economy, students need more liberal education, not less.

    ... although employers acknowledge that colleges must provide students with the skills specific to various professions, those skills must be complemented by aptitudes traditionally associated with liberal learning. Indeed, a majority of the employers surveyed believe that colleges should place more emphasis on students mastering liberal education outcomes, including:
    • Global issues and developments and their implications for their future
    • The role of the United States in the world
    • A sense of integrity and ethics
    • Cultural values and traditions in America and other countries
    • Civic knowledge, civic participation, and community engagement
    • Democracy and government
    • The ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings through internships or other hands-on experience
    • The ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing
    • Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills

    Go humanities go!

  3. A timely article in Newsweek:"The Case for a Useless Degree."

    A snippet:
    "A degree in history or religion or languages can be anything you want it to be. Say you're interested in a career that makes lots of money. After a few years of work, an M.B.A. would be a good bet. But an undergraduate degree in business isn't necessarily going to give you a leg up. "We obviously take people with marketing or business backgrounds," says Bruce DelMonico, director of admissions at the Yale School of Management, "But we don't value those over liberal arts or humanities backgrounds." Stats don't lie. One in five of the school's 2010 class was a business major, the same number majored in humanities. "It's not a question of, 'do you have the particular classes,' but it's do you have the mindset, the temperament, the intellectual horsepower to succeed?"

    In your first job out of college, pretty much everything is going to be learned at work. From there, erecting a successful career means moving onto a new position by building on prior work experience more than it does falling back on a Methods of Accounting or Communicating Your Message Effectively class from your junior year. In fact, there is a good chance that when you're pitted up against four other candidates and you can explain to the hiring manager how your history degree has helped you understand complex problems in perspective, you'll stand apart as someone who's more insightful than the others who are just towing the line."

  4. An issue that I have with passivity is in the way that many of us teach. This is an issue that has been discussed on this blog many times, so I am going to be over simplistic to make my point. I realize that the contributors to this blog do not exemplify, or are at least trying to minimize the effects of what I am about to describe.

    One of the main problems in education is that we are increasingly adapting to the perceived needs (desires, wants) of our students who seem to be telling us that we should use more PowerPoints, put our notes on BB, outline arguments on the 'blackboard, even record our lectures and place them in a Podcast for further use, etc. Furthermore, I think there is a tendency to think that we, as philosophers, are the experts (after all, this is my area of competence and expertise) therefore we should tell our students what we think they should know about the topic being discussed. We forget that the Socratic method is designed, as Hope May argued, to expose our ignorance not to show off what we think we know.

    What do these approaches to learning have in common? They allow the student to be passive - they simply absorb what we tell them without any, or limited, or structured, dialogical interaction between we and they. They become bystanders to the process. If we tell them what is important and how the arguments are structured, then they do not have to think about these issues and work them out for themselves. They know that we will do the work for them.

    If we want to develop a critical, Socratic, imaginative mindset in our students we need to put away our toys, or severely limit their use, and bring real dialogue into the classroom. And this has to be done at the earliest possible stage in the intellectual and conceptual development of our children. College is way too late!


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