Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Episode 2: Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Marcel, and Glenn Beck

There’s really not much in the second chapter of Nussbaum’s book that I disagree with – in fact, I found myself doing a lot of affirmative nodding and muttering “preach it!” to myself under my breath as I read along. I’ll first mention a positive reaction I had to the chapter, and then focus on a concern that I break into two parts.

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.


  1. The parallels you draw between Marcel and Nussbaum are interesting. I'm not sure the growth model is described best as a problem-solving orientation at all. I think the Neo-classical Paradigm in economics that holds that unlimited economic growth on a planet of finite resources is possible an anti-scientific claim insofar as it flies in the face of the laws of physics. As such, this claim cannot really face up to the real problems of descreasing petroleum-based sources of energy or the climate changes and pollution caused by these energy sources.

    What I want to continue to press is a question about the character of the Humanities itself. Are philosophy, poetry, literature, history, and music intrinsically democratic? Are they guided solely by values of empathy, participation, and critical thinking? Or are what we really should be talking about is a critical and democratic pedagogy that can be applied to all subject areas?

    I think a case can be made for consonance between Humanities and democracy. But I'm not sure if Professor Nussbaum makes it in her book.

  2. Chris, really thoughtful observations.

    Like John, you worry that Nussbaum's message won't resonate with important audiences (like students and their parents!). I suspect you may be right about this, but here are some ideas to counteract that.

    a) It's important to note that Nussbaum doesn't want to dismiss the value of the humanities for individual and collective economic goals. Her view is that such goals don't exhaust the value of the study of the humanities. And I agree with you that we need to do a better job selling the economic benefits of the humanities. The students where I teach are (like yours) a pretty pragmatic lot, and I've tried to encourage my department to make the case for the economic value of studying philosophy — to point out that creativity, critical thinking, analysis of complex texts, etc. is valuable in the boardroom as well as in the voting booth. To my mind, this is to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Students may well be attracted to studying the humanities for non-economic reasons, but they likely won't choose that path if they see it as economic suicide. So I concur with you that we need better salesmanship for the economic benefits of the humanities.

    (b) One way to present the 'liberal' message you mention is to point to how the humanities might enable better understanding of the very cultures hostile to that message. The humanities need not be all Proust, Plato, and Mozart. The humanities also has space for Steinbeck, Springsteen, and country music. In other words, I do think there is a culture gap between humanities educators and many of their working class, pragmatic students, but perhaps that gap could be bridged, and the value of the humanities to engender cross-cultural understanding, etc. made apparent, if humanistic education took 'ordinary' American culture more seriously.

    (c) Is it worth distinguishing, a la Rawls, between neutral premises and neutral results? I don't think that a liberal education is biased in terms of its premises, in the sense that such an education is not hostile to what you called "the growth model + negative liberties." After all, liberal education produces libertarians, William Bennett, etc. So perhaps we can do better to show that a "liberal" (i.e., broad-minded) education is not a doctrinaire education and is not per se hostile to the values of our students.

    (d) Lastly, I'm comfortable with a certain amount of "bait and switch" when it comes to educational goals. In other words, I'm not troubled by a gap between the arguments we use to justify humanistic education and the actual goods it provides. For example, I certainly don't teach with the narrow aim of enhancing my students' marketable job skills. I have many other aims besides. And most of the students who have positive experiences in humanities courses are responding to non-economic benefits. So I wonder how important it is to make the 'humanities support democracy' argument to a broader public -- can we just make a solid instrumental/economic case and leave the other goods humanities education provides out of the public justification?

  3. Chris -

    A quick reply on your first paragraph, and then I'll return later tonight to the rest of what you've written, as well as comment on some of Micheal's observations.

    I think Marcel just means by 'problem oriented' that there's a certain way that a person can approach an issue, not that it can be problem-solved successfully or coherently in that way. So it's more of an orientation question.

    The 'growth' model seems to me to suppose that education is, to a large extent, 'outside' of the identity of the person being educated. So it functions merely as a tool in order to get other things (money, etc). I think of hammers as outside of me, as tools to complete my projects, not as something that is an integral part of what it means for me to even have a project in the first place. As a result, 'problem' orientations lead to techniques designed to better and more efficiently use the hammer in order to get what you want.

    I think that pretty much sums up the way that the growth model has tried to capture our thinking about education!

    Be back later.

  4. Michael -

    Thanks for the reply. Here are some quick thoughts on what you've said, by letter for clarity's sake.

    a) I agree that Nussbaum doesn't want to dismiss the value of the humanities for individual and collective economic goals. I suspect that she knows well enough that this is the primary motor of persuasion in these situations.

    Personally, I have no problem with such arguments on their face, because I think what they suggest is in fact true. Critical, imaginative, and difference-sensitive thinkers likely (though clearly not destined to) do much better in the practical world. So on one level, sure, why not use it as an explanation?

    My worries here are two:

    1. I don't know anyone in the Humanities who thinks it is the primary or leading value of the field. So to use it as the front-liner argument with students and parents (say) feels disingenuous to me. I can appreciate that people should not feel that course selection is economic suicide, but allaying this fear seems consistent with not using the practical approach as the primary method of argument.

    2. Arguing from this perspective about the value of the Humanities (even if that value is present) in order to persuade the audience seems to me to buy into and further exacerbate the problem. Essentially, this approach just _is_ the attempt at framing the value of the Humanities in terms of the frames used by the growth model. In the general population, the basic problem highlighted by Nussbaum just gets worse.

    (b) I'm sensitive to your culture gap issue, but not sure how to respond. Personally, I grew up poor, and most liberal arts people I tend to associate with were poor or lower-middle class. That said, I know there are a lot of Humanities educators from privileged backgrounds who most certainly see Springsteen as a lower pleasure and Mozart as a higher one. I'm just not sure what the actual number crunch down into. It would be interesting to see some stats on this.

    (c) My take is that Nussbaum is saying that a true liberal arts education would be hostile to the "growth model + negative liberties" model. She seems to point to this strongly in chapter two - where she argues that the growth model (which in America is consistent with negative liberty anyway) tends to erode at the injustices (thinking in terms of more positive liberties) that it can hide. For instance, the growth model wants people to be insensitive to extreme class differences in terms of resources, and so on - but a true liberal arts education opens people's eyes to those very problems.

    The issue is, though, that they are only "problems" if you think the 'growth + neg lib' model is not sufficient for justice. Which strikes my students and their parents as pretty clearly 'liberal'. Which, given the American political landscape, is probably right.

    In a way, Michael, we might agree that a liberal arts education should not be doctrinaire, and should produce libertarians too. I'm just not so sure that Nussbaum sees it that way. I could be wrong here, but I read many of her claims in chapter 2 to pointing out how liberal arts educations (when they embody the approaches she advocates) will be 'eye opening' (liberating!) with respect to inequities of many stripes that the 'growth + neg liberty' embraces. One wonders whether Nussbaum might see a libertarian coming out of such an education as a bit dense?

    I'm open to correction on this point -- if anyone is willing, please let me know!

    (d) I'm uncomfortable with bait and switch here. Again, I don't mind the economic arguments, when they are presented as ranking second, or third in priority. However, that's cheating. If the best way we can "save the humanities" is by denying the primary value of the Humanities as its most convincing feature, then the Humanities is already, in my opinion, on its way to becoming dead.

  5. Chris, a lot to say in reply, but a quick thought on the 'bait and switch'/true value of the humanities issue: I think my position is that we need to make the economic argument first in order of presentation but not first in order of justification. Again, I think we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room, allaying students' fears that studying the humanities is economically imprudent and showing decisionmakers that the humanities make a positive contribution to the economic bottom line.

    (A side note here: I've never encountered a student who says "I'm really interested in studying philosophy because I know it'll help me get a job, but I think it's really boring!" It's always the other way around: "I'm thinking about majoring in philosophy, but I don't see that it'll help in my career!" So again, I think we need to deal with the economic fears, because at least for students, there's often an implicit recognition of what we think of as the humanities' intrinsic value.)

    But having made the economic argument, we can then proceed to make the Nussbaum-type arguments. I sometimes worry that we academics let our intellectual integrity stand in the way of political savvy. But I don't think my approach amounts to selling out the true value of the humanities or compromising our integrity.

  6. M:

    We agree on the need to allay fears, and to assure people that the Humanities makes a positive contribution to whatever economic future they desire to secure. (Side note: just how much of the Humanities is required to meet that goal is an interesting question; likely less than we'd like is my intuition).

    Politically and pragmatically, I don't disagree. The language of the day just _is_ the growth model, in its various forms. Now there's nothing wrong, IMO, with the growth model as a component of life. People need to have secure economic futures. So it plays a role. However, Nussbaum's worry is that it is the overriding model, eclipsing all others.

    This is my worry too. So although I do acknowledge the need to do what you say, I prefer to argue for the Humanities on its own terms, adding to this explanation (which is primary) other added pluses about growth. What I don't want to see happen is that we consign ourselves to a never ending "rearguard action" against the ever expanding scope of the growth model, a rearguard action that will, in future, require more and more concessions as time goes on.

    (Also, just as a quick side point, in my thoughts above I haven't really so much been thinking of worried philosophy majors, but rather of the students who we require to take the Humanities courses that make it possible for philosophy majors to exist.

    So I'm thinking more of that student, his/her mom, his/her mom's local community friends who complain about all the BS courses their kids have to take in college, or heck - of some of my own colleagues in the non- Humanities, some of whom can't figure out the point of requiring Humanities courses in the gen ed curriculum.)


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