Monday, September 20, 2010

Not for Profit, Episode 7: Philosophy for Democracy

If we do not insist on the crucial importance of the humanities and the arts, they will drop away, because they do not make money. They only do what is much more precious than that, make a world that is worth living in, people who are able to see other human beings as full people, with thoughts and feelings of their own that deserve respect and empathy, and nations that are able to overcome fear and suspicion in favor of sympathetic and reasoned debate (Nussbaum, Not for Profit, p. 143).

I always learn much from Nussbaum’s writings, and Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities is no exception. Like the earlier contributors, I’ve found this book to be timely. (My college is in the midst of a “program prioritization”, and it’s quickly become obvious that even -- especially? -- academics on my campus have real trouble describing to each other the value of what we do in not-solely-economic ways that can be useful for planning purposes.) I’ve also found the book to be thought provoking, inspirational in its scope, and maybe even a bit heroic in its mission.

Michael and Chris are right to clarify that the real subject is not humanities per se, but humanistic educations, and I’ll be using “humanities education” interchangeably with “humanistic education”. Most of us know very well that subjects can be taught, and learned, in ways that are rote, that discourage critical thinking, and that stunt rather than enrich imaginative and empathetic capacities. Nothing about the study of any particular subject necessarily leads to any specific affective or cognitive outcomes! So, I think that the book should really have been subtitled, “Why Democracy Needs the Humanities To Be Taught In Particular Ways”, though that presumes that they should be taught at all, which is precisely the point of contention.

(“Democracy”, by the way, is most clearly characterized on pages 24 – 25: a system in which people “hav[e] a voice in the choice of the policies that govern [their lives]”, in which there is “a strong role for fundamental rights that cannot be taken away from people by majority whim”. And “humanities” are those subjects that foster imagination, creativity, and rigorous critical thought, but even subjects in the natural sciences can include those “humanistic aspects” (p.2).)

Many of the thoughts, questions, and concerns that swarmed me as I finished the book have already been raised and explored by my fellow commentators, so I’ll toss out (in the sense of “present”, not “discard”) a couple of topics and questions that haven’t yet come up. That’s not to imply that the previously-raised topics have been exhausted, of course!

1. As I made my way through Nussbaum’s book, I wondered not just whether humanistic education is itself at risk, but whether democracy itself – or, less hyperbolically, democratic citizenship as an ideal – is at risk. Though I’m well aware of the futility of harkening back to some putatively Golden Age that never actually existed, I found myself thinking about some of the ways in which, in this country, we’ve seen a general retreat from public engagement of all sorts, and maybe even from the idea of a citizen as anything more than a once-every-other-year voter. Clearly there are many who have been happy to see that. But in any case, it’s worth thinking hard about the extent to which commitment to democratic ideals is, as Nussbaum fears, a form of mere “lip service” (p. 141). Nussbaum’s book is, it seems to me, as much a paean to the value of democratic citizenship as it is to the value of humanities education. So, even people who are indifferent about the latter should find the book a stirring defense of the former.

2. Speaking of non-existent Golden Ages, I can’t resist noting the interesting and depressing similarities between Nussbaum’s concerns and those conveyed by one of my favorites, John Stuart Mill.
(As Nussbaum notes in the chapter, "Cultivating Imagination",) Mill was one of the most committed defenders of the kind of education that Nussbaum, too, advocates, and for similar reasons. In observing that there are some similarities in theme to an essay written roughly two centuries earlier, I don't mean to diminish the sense of urgency that Nussbaum brings to the conversation, but instead, I hope, to add to it.

In “Professor Sedgwick’s Discourse on the Studies at the University of Cambridge” (1835), Mill begins on a high note: “If we were asked for what end, above all others, endowed universities exist, or ought to exist, we should answer—To keep alive philosophy.” But he goes on to lament the “absence of enlarged and commanding views” in contemporary English society, a fault for which he suggests universities are at least partly culpable: “…Perhaps this degeneracy is the effect of some cause over which the universities had no control, and against which they have been ineffectually struggling. If so, those bodies are wonderfully patient of being baffled…. All is right so long as no one speaks of taking away their endowments, or encroaching upon their monopoly. - While they are thus eulogizing their own efforts, and the results of their efforts; philosophy—not any particular school of philosophy, but philosophy altogether—speculation of any comprehensive kind, and upon any deep or extensive subject—has been falling more and more into distastefulness and disrepute among the educated classes of England. Have those classes meanwhile learned to slight and despise these authorized teachers of philosophy, or ceased to frequent their schools? Far from it. The universities then may flourish, though the pursuits which are the end and justification of the existence of universities decay. The teacher thrives and is in honour, while that which he affects to teach vanishes from among mankind.”

3. It’s impressive to me that Nussbaum’s book itself manages to demonstrate several of the features that could be part of a humanities education. One of those features is especially related to the cultivation of imagination and moral sympathy: the careful interlacing of general claims and principles with the telling of individual narratives (by or about, e.g., Pestalozzi, Winnicott, and Tagore). While we'll want more empirical evidence of some of the causal claims than is found in the book, let’s say that the best case for humanities education requires telling the stories of particular people and the ways in which they have felt their lives enriched by humanities education. What does that mean for us as philosophy instructors? I’ll focus on what we can do in our courses; others have addressed and will address the equally pressing question of what we can do elsewhere.

We could help by, when appropriate, incorporating more writings from authors who straddle borders between philosophy and literature (Rebecca Goldstein, Richard Powers, and Colson Whitehead are contemporary US authors who come to mind) or between philosophy and autobiography. We could definitely help by continuing to resist pressures to increase class sizes, because the kind of “cottage” model that Nussbaum advocates fits poorly, it seems to me, with our actual “industrial” structures of class enrollment and teaching. And we could help by incorporating meta-level discussions into our conversations with students. Some of the most effective teachers I’ve seen – regardless of discipline – have been very explicit with their students about the fact that formal education is as much meta-cognitive (and I’d add, meta-affective) as it is cognitive. They have designed assignments that require students to reflect on themselves as learners, so that they can tell their own stories most effectively to audiences – including, perhaps, skeptical family members – who might need convincing of the not-solely-economic value of this sort of education.


  1. On the topic of intersecting literary works in ethics courses, here are two highly useful anthologies.

    Singer and Singer 2004 The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature

    Anton Leist and Peter Singer 2010 J. M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature

    I would be very interested, since I haven't yet read Nussbaums book, if there is any reasoning on how philosophy can more concretely be ambassadors of the socratic method in relation to other humanities subjects. Should phil deps approach lit, history, arts departments and suggest mixed courses? What does such intersubject courses require of the philosopher as teacher and planner?

  2. Vance,

    On democracy itself: My sense is that civic education in our democracy often fails to instill any deep appreciation for democracy: how it works, why it's worth having, etc. I don't mean that people don't support democracy. Every American I've ever met favors democracy, but often their support for it is not based in a very richly informed pictureof what democracy is. So ironically, might a central aim of humanistic education in a democracy be education about democracy? (That's what political theory, whether done in philosophy departments or poli sci departments, has long addressed.) In Nussbaum's terms, is the fact that the humanities' contributions to democracy is underappreciated due to an insufficient appreciation of democracy?

  3. Jon
    One way to solve this important issue you raise is to dismantle Philosophy Departments and have the philosophers become part of the department that is most closely relevant to the AOC/AOS. One of the problems that I have seen within PD's is that philosophers do not talk to each other if their individual areas of expertise and interests do not overlap. So there is an argument that could be made that philsophers would better serve the overall 'community of scholars' if they were in touch with other scholars who work in the areas they are investigating philosophically. If you happen to think that philosophers deal with foundational issues then there would be great value in having a philosopher of physics being in the Physics department; or the philosopher of art being in the Art Department; or ethicists being in medical schools, business schools, law schools, as they often now are, etc.

  4. Sorry for the delayed replies.

    jon -- Thanks for the anthology recommendations. I was familiar with the Singer/Singer one, but not the other one.
    Nussbaum's book doesn't explicitly address the questions that you pose here, other than by saying, "what's required will be hard work". The suggestion of proposing mixed or team-taught courses is a good one anyway, but maybe especially for philosophers. Earlier discussion threads have raised the subject of just how receptive our fellow humanists would be to such a proposal in the first place -- so maybe a good first step would be establish informal ties (e.g., sitting in on each other's courses; forming a book discussion group).
    What are your thoughts about your questions?

    Michael -- I agree with your diagnosis of civics education, which -- to the extent that it still occurs at all -- is frequently focused on procedures and institutions. Certainly, philosophers could work with other humanists (esp. historians and with political theorists, if they count as humanists) to explore the relationships between different conceptions of democracy and its value.

    I don't know whether, in a society that "truly" appreciated, say, quasi-Habermasian style democracy, there'd be equal appreciation of the humanities' contributions to fostering/preserving the conditions for that democracy, but it seems plausible to me.

    John -- I'm amused by the idea of a "house philosopher"! (I don't mean amused in a dismissive way.) I think that most academic disciplines, or at least departments, could benefit from an occasion reconfiguration that threw people working on related questions, and/or using related methodological methods, together.


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