Much of what Nussbaum says reminds me strongly of the thinking of Gabriel Marcel (who I also tend to enjoy quite a bit). For Marcel, some approaches to life are ‘problem’ oriented (Nussbaum’s ‘growth’ model), and see things/situations as ‘problems to be solved’. Marcel thought that such an approach inherently involved drawing up a separation between the agent and the problem, and the cultivation of ‘techniques’ possessed by the agent to control and/or master the problem/thing. Other approaches are ‘mystery’ oriented (closer to Nussbaum’s human development model), and see things (or some one or more things) as not reducible to a formula or complete reductive understanding. They always involve an overlap between the agent and the issue in view, as opposed to a separation, and they do not involve techniques of mastery or control, but rather carefully cultivated attitudes (Marcel’s ethics) and abilities like creativity, faith, hope and love.
It’s not hard to see that approaching life always as a ‘problem’ leads a person to see others as means to an end (as they are objects to be controlled), always involves attempts to reduce others to ‘formulas’ and categories that can be ‘understood’ in a reductive manner, and so on, whereas seeing relations with others as in some sense involving mystery involves a kind of basic respect for the irreducibility of the other, and a commitment to cultivating critical thinking, creativity, tolerance, and love in one’s life. Clearly, the Marcel/Nussbaum approach is superior for the fostering of a strong democracy, whereas the remaining approach is destructive to it. I agree and concur.
Thinking in terms of respecting ‘the other’ made me think of a specific set of others – my students and their parents. Many of them, in Southwest Missouri where I teach, would not react well to what Nussbaum (or Marcel) says. Moreover, it struck me that Marcel-reading philosophers shouldn’t be Nussbaum’s intended audience – my students and their parents should be. I’m already convinced by the need for the Humanities. They aren’t, and frankly they are the ones who will lead the market-driven end to the Humanities that Nussbaum fears. So I tried to re-read the chapter through their eyes. Although I think I could come up with a lot of responses from their point of view, I’ll focus just on two questions or concerns that would arise quickly.
I. Objection One: I Pay a LOT of Money for College, and Nussbaum’s Concerns Aren’t My Own
We can read Nussbaum’s chapter as focusing on all private and/or public education, primary and secondary, and/or college. Clearly she means all of it, but some specific attention is given to colleges. I teach at a private liberal arts college. Many of my students and their parents are not interested in paying 20K a year to assure that democracy flourishes, or that students cultivate capacities that may or may not (in their view) lead to human flourishing. Instead, they are there to learn a trade, to earn the degree that functions as the gate keeper to the middle class and a low chance of future unemployment. Twenty thousand bucks is a lot of money, and let’s face it – my school is cheap.
Given that reality, how do we convince those in the audience that the Humanities are needed? Of course, the obvious way to go is to convince people of the instrumental good that these skills play in assisting people in their future economic pursuits. So we convince them that all those philosophy and romance literature courses really are, in the end, getting them the maximum bang for their buck.
Personally, I think as Humanities educators we do a poor job in outlining why this is actually true (me included). However, with Marcel in mind, I wonder: do we even want to reduce the Humanities to an instrumental good, to see it as yet another “technique” in the tool-kit of a person who already sees the world and others as ‘problems to be solved’ (controlled/manipulated)? I think Nussbaum would clearly say no, but I am not left, at this point in the book, with a good way of attacking this concern. I’m also left thinking that we are faced with a paradox that is similar to the paradox of virtue: how do you get people to approach the Humanities as a valued embrace of the mysterious if they are not already disposed to think this way? If they are not so disposed, what do we do then?
II. Objection Two: Isn’t Nussbaum Just a Card-Carrying Liberal?
Of course, one way is to appeal to a sense of justice that people have already from the start. In fact, Nussbaum spends a lot of time pointing out that growth orientation does not necessarily lead to increases of liberty, health, education, just distribution of resources, and so on. My imagined audience might well agree, suggesting that growth is not a sufficient condition for the more robust set of goods Nussbaum prizes.
However, I can easily imagine some of my students and their parents agreeing, but thinking that in the US we already have the kinds of minimum political entitlements that, with the growth model, suffice for justice. If there are inequities beyond this, this is not injustice but a matter of choice on the part of individuals (work harder!). According to these folks, the growth model + negative liberties are sufficient. To argue otherwise, they will object, is to inject a clear political – liberal -- aim into the education system. At that point you’re trying to train my kid (or my friend) to be a good liberal. Let’s face it -- that’s not going to play well on FOX and on Glenn Beck, and frankly the audience Nussbaum needs to hit to achieve her aim importantly includes that demographic.
So at this point, we’re left with an instrumental approach or a justice approach. The former caves into the very problem itself, the latter approach requires ‘going liberal’ (sort of like ‘going rogue’). Is that liberal approach present? To quote a famous speaker, “You betcha!” Just to mention one case: Nussbaum talks about how ‘fear’ can operate as the motive to suppress critical thinking, and that the adherents to the growth-model can push for the suppression of such thinking and such education out of a worry that basic injustices (on a number of levels) springing from growth-based systems will become apparent, and such transparency is destabilizing for the growth model. For the American conservative reader, this will sound off the wall, and an educational system (the Humanities!) that is based in this kind of thinking will be seen as indoctrinating in aim.
In sum, and again, I love this book – its message and its aim. However, given that I do truly care about both of these things, I so far worry about the delivery here. My concern is that non-true believers are not going to be motivated by much of what Nussbaum says – perhaps they may even be less disposed to the Humanities in the end.
These are all large problems I am pointing to here – not just for Nussbaum, but for all of us. Admittedly, I have no idea how to solve them without falling back into the trap of arguing for the instrumental value of the Humanities, and as I’ve already suggested, there is something not-quite authentic about that approach – in fact, when I use it, I am always under the impression that I am not being entirely genuine, and it bugs me.