Monday, November 8, 2010

Reply, by Martha Nussbaum

The following includes some thoughts from Professor Nussbaum concerning our recent discussion of Not for Profit. We appreciate her taking the time to read and respond to the posts.


Martha Nussbaum

I want to thank everyone who contributed to this Symposium, because I learned a lot from it, and I admire the thoughtfulness and engagement of all the participants.  Rather than answer each person one by one, I will now take up some themes that come up in several posts.

1.     The Humanities In America
My book concerns a worldwide problem.  This problem is certainly evident in the U. S., particularly in K through 12 and in state universities, which have recently suffered some alarming cuts (at SUNY Albany, to name just one notorious example).  But it is also worth insisting that the humanities are in a comparatively healthy state in the U. S., because of several unique features of our system.  First is its commitment to liberal arts education at the undergraduate level.  Although under strain, this commitment is holding firm, as liberal arts colleges see a marked increase in applications.  This system allows us to do two things at once: on the one hand, to prepare all young citizens for citizenship and life; on the other hand, to offer a more intensive training in one subject that in many cases will be preparation for a career.  In most countries of the world (Korea being the only exception I know) this system is absent, and students have to choose just one subject.  So, if they don’t major in humanities, they don’t do any humanities.  Our system gives us a fine answer to the parent’s first objection: their child can get a solid preparation for a career, while still also getting a broad-based liberal education.  If the parent doesn’t care about liberal education, we are entitled to say at that point, citizenship is for all, and we are entitled to require all young people to learn the skills it requires, whether this parent cares about it or not. 

The second feature of our system that I have come (slowly) to love is its embrace of private funding.  Private funding works to insulate the mission of our colleges and universities from political pressures, but it works only because of the antecedent commitment to liberal education – which means that bankers, CEO’s, and so forth have all studied philosophy and literature.  What I find when I talk to our trustees and donors is that people who have become wealthy remember with delight and love the time when they studied ideas for their own sake, talked about Plato with their friends, etc., and that memory keeps them committed to supporting those activities.  Politicians, by contrast, have perverse incentives: for their careers require them to show results before the next election, and this frequently leads to an instrumental conception of higher education, in which it is measured by its ability to help the state’s economy grow.   The system of private funding is made viable by our tax incentives and by social norms that attach prestige to support for universities.  Most other countries don’t have the structures that make our system work, and it would be difficult for them to start them.  

We must not be complacent.  Foundation giving to humanities has declined, during the past five years, from 17 percent to 14 percent.  So we must all work to keep our donors involved with campus life, creating interesting intellectual events for them and telling them about what we do.  I fear that a lot of us don’t bother to do this. 

Those who are in public colleges and universities need not despair, but your job is harder, because the people to whom you owe your livelihood have not been selected on account of any love of higher education or expertise in it.  So what you have to do is talk more, write more, just make a larger effort to show the worth of what you do. 

2.     Humanities Teaching Today
Like Harry Brighouse, I think that the humanities need to examine themselves and to ask whether they are playing a role that is worthy of what they can offer to democracy (and to individual lives).  Not surprisingly, most participants focus on philosophy, where I believe that teaching is relatively good and things are in a relatively healthy state, though even here there is room for improvement. If we turn to literature departments, however, I believe that we do not always find there the respect for rigor in argument that we ought to find, and we often do not find the idea that opposing positions deserve respect and sympathetic scrutiny.  I think that the American public believes that we all demonize conservative positions and engage in indoctrination for left-wing ideas.  When this challenge has been posed to me (as it was by several of the callers on a recent C-Span Book TV show), I insist on the way in which we teach respect for argument and form communities of cooperative endeavor across political and ideological lines.  I believe this to be true of many if not most philosophy departments, and it is certainly true of the University of Chicago Law School, where I spend most of my time, and where there are real conservatives to be confronted, as is more rarely the case in philosophy.  But in literature departments I so often see opposing positions demonized and not engaged with seriously, and I think this is a grave failing of our culture. 

Another failing might be the teaching of skepticism, but that is not one that I frequently see in philosophy teaching in the areas I know best (moral and political philosophy).  In fact students come into the classroom with a na├»ve sort of relativism, believing that to assert  a definite position is to denigrate people who think differently.  And then, if things go well, as they often do, they learn the difference between mutual respect and relativism, and they learn how to conduct a respectful argument with people who think differently.  They learn that having a position does not mean insulting someone else, because there is a way of putting forward one’s own position (by persuasive argument) that is not insulting but deeply respectful.

It may well be that people who listen to Fox News don’t think that they want this sort of respectful argument, but if they think again, they will see that democracy requires it for its survival.  In a nation where dissent is demonized, democracy is at risk.  

As for the suggestion that tenured professors shy away from teaching undergraduates, leaving that crucial task to overworked graduate students, that, again, does not correspond to my experience.  Our Core courses that involve philosophy (Philosophical Perspectives and Human Being and Citizen) are taught in twenty-student sections about 95 percent of which are led by full-time faculty, many tenured.  (Our administration requires departments to staff a certain number of sections of the Core, and if this were done inadequately, the department would suffer.)  Nor is this sort of dedication a feature only of privileged institutions.  My former graduate students teach in many different types of institutions, as the job market dictates, and they are all deeply immersed in undergraduate teaching.  Where undergraduate teaching is not adequately staffed, we should certainly protest, but I think that the public is often under a misconception about the professioriate, thinking that we all dislike teaching, and we need to set this straight.   Jason Nicholson is right: we must hold ourselves to a high standard, and teach humanistically.  Where we don’t, we’re selling the humanities, and our students, short.

3.     Critical Skills and Substance.

Certainly our students need more than Socrates: they need the cultivation of imaginative capacities, and they need to develop related virtues.  How much of this is the job of the philosophy classroom.  On the whole, I am with John Stuart Mill in his wonderful Inaugural Address as Rector of St. Andrews University.  Mill says that higher education prepares people for citizenship, and citizenship needs the virtues, but not every part of the cultivation of virtue is the job of higher education.  We have to rely on young people getting a certain formation of sympathy in the family and the schools, and university education will best be conceived as dialectical, showing the merits of the various philosophical alternatives and the arguments that support them.  Of course when one has written things one can’t avoid having students know that one has positions, but then it is especially important, while showing the reasons why one has espoused a position, to encourage extremely strongly arguments on behalf of the opposing position, and students who are drawn to those positions.  A classroom all too easily becomes hierarchical, and students can be afraid to diverge from the instructor’s known views.  So empowerment of the opposition (whether it be utilitarianism in political philosophy or noncognitive views of emotion in philosophy of emotion) has always been one of my biggest efforts as a teacher. 

But Mill made a further point, with which I also agree (and it’s closely related to Mike’s list of suggestions): universities may and should engage in “aesthetic education,” by which he means an opening and expansion of the imagination and the emotions through contact with works of poetry and fine art – but one might also include those works inside a philosophy curriculum, as Mike proposes.  While developing the critical faculties, we can and should also cultivate the discernment of emotions and a type of flexible perspective-taking.  This will become indoctrination only if it is not accompanied by critical challenges and rigorous argument.

Well, enough said.  Let us carry on the fight wherever we are, by getting out there and talking to parents, trustees, and politicians, and by giving our students the painstaking genuinely humanistic instruction they deserve.  


  1. So people who don't attend college are not citizens? That's the implication.

  2. Martha, I appreciate your reply. We were privileged to have the opportunity to discuss your book in such great depth.

    My main reservation about your book is that I simply don't think that an appeal to democracy moves many people. My sense is that at least in the U.S., everyone's a democrat but no one is. By which I mean, the conception of what democracy is (basically voting for office holders) is very thin, and few people give much thought to what institutions, culture practices, and citizen habits of mind make for a healthy democracy. Tocqueville and others notwithstanding, Americans' conception of their democracy is basically instrumentalist and interest-based. As such, I think it likely that claiming the humanities are needed for a healthy democracy is likely to talk past those whose conception of democracy is thin in this way.

    But as several of my recent posts here indicate, I also think we can make much better economic arguments for the value of the humanities than we currently make!

  3. The two main flaws in professor Nussbaum's defense of liberal education are its elitism and the lack of evidence.

    It is elitist because it suggests that without liberal arts education people lack some essential moral and civic virtues. But her solution is a highly selective institution that excludes most, doesn't begin until 18, and remains modelled on the pre-1900 role of a finishing school for the upper-middle-class. Even if this works as she wants, it only benefits a tiny number of people who, if they read her book, will then go about thinking they are morally superior to everyone else.

    I know that professor Nussbaum doesn't like numbers because they introduce 'utilitarian characteristics', but surely her argument that liberal arts makes better citizens could be supported by some evidence beyond the anecdotal. Are engineers demonstrably soulless and amoral? Are they really less ethical than law graduates? Wouldn't someone have noticed by now?

  4. Tom, I don't think your first charge is a fair one. Much of our discussion has focused on liberal arts education in universities, but Nussbaum addresses secondary and elementary education in her book as well.

  5. Sorry, I was basing this on Nussbaum's post here and her previous book 'Cultivating Humanity'.

    The humanities are absolutely too important to leave to universities to teach.

  6. This is an interesting read in connection with Nussbaum's argument and some of the comments here. (I say this more as a joke than as a serious comment, but it is food for thought.)

  7. Thanks for the link, DR. Nussbaum has said similar things in relation to Gujarat and extremist violence. But even your article also notes that the correlation is tiny and only links to right wing violence. Anarchists and communists apparently prefer poetry.

    "Between 1970 and 1978, for instance, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany staged kidnappings, assassinations, bank robberies and bombings. Seventeen of its members had college or graduate degrees, mostly in law or the humanities. Not one studied engineering."

  8. Tom, your first claim is flawed in several ways:
    1. Nussbaum does not only focus on higher ed (as pointed out by MC above)
    2. even if it had focused only on higher ed, Nussbaum's point is still not, as far as I can read, that the values a good humanistic education TENDS to cultivate are IMPOSSIBLE to get elsewhere: through life experiences, upbringing, self-studies and so on. The claim is only that humanistic education is a in important boost here. (And the US sure needs any boosts available, as any nation with war criminals for president two times in a row would.)

    3. even if it was impossible to get those values in any other way, it is unclear if people who have gotten them should (a moral question) or would (an empirical question) see themselves as morally superior. If you by moral superiority mean disvaluing other fellow humans then that clearly does not follow. If you by moral superiority mean having and accepting greater moral responsibility (due to more insight into certain problems and better motivation for fitting moral action) then maybe so, but why would that be a problem?

  9. ed, Nussbaum's perfectionism about the humanities is elitist. The core idea is that 19th century academic techniques of deep textual analysis will protect our young people from the empty-headed vitriol of popular culture, including race-hatred and sexual violence. (By the way, George W. Bush took a BA in history at Yale - what was your point there?)

    Moral superiority as "having and accepting greater moral responsibility (due to more insight into certain problems and better motivation for fitting moral action)" is a problem if it leads humanities graduates to believe that their moral beliefs are systematically superior. It's rather like someone who's been psycho-analysed by Freud believing she can do no wrong. Liberal democracy requires a fundamental respect for the moral autonomy and political equality of others. Nussbaum's analysis implies that such respect should be relative to a judgement of the fitness of citizens, according to whether or not they think in certain ways. This makes politics easy in the wrong way: those who disagree with you are evil and fools - and thus not true citizens (compare with the 'UnAmerican' insult of the right).

    I think this all follows from Nussbaum's perfectionist Aristotelian tendencies, which have gotten her into trouble before. She is prone to saying that such and such is essential to a fully human life and then retreating to more nuanced phrasing when challenged for implying some people are sub-human. But she does this so often that no-one is convinced anymore. (The same thing happened with her work on the Capability Approach where her plan for development is a list of what she thinks all fully human lives require that should be written into all national constitutions and interpreted by supreme court justices who think like her.)

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  12. Tom,

    I don't mean to be blunt, but have you read the book at all? That humanities education would generate feelings of moral superiority or judgments of who is or is not fit to be a human agent are light years away from Nussbaum's picture of liberal education. The first entry in our discussion ("Not for Profit, episode 1", August 25) also makes an important distinction between humanistic education and humanities education that I think you're missing.

  13. Michael, Sorry I haven't read her book - as I said in an earlier comment. But I have read her earlier books on this theme - like Poetic Justice and Cultivating Humanity, and I have also read her work on the Capability Approach quite extensively, so I think I have a pretty good idea where she's coming from. Perhaps I am being excessively skeptical in the manner, as you note, that is all too common in philosophy graduates? But after reading this review , I have no strong motivation to read this latest version of her argument.

  14. Tom:

    Re Bush: the fact that one individual did not reach goal X by process Y is no objection to the claim that Y TENDS to output X.

    "Moral superiority as "having and accepting greater moral responsibility (due to more insight into certain problems and better motivation for fitting moral action)" is a problem if it leads humanities graduates to believe that their moral beliefs are systematically superior."

    Nussbaum does not claim that they should.
    You have given no evidence that they would.

    "Liberal democracy requires a fundamental respect for the moral autonomy and political equality of others. Nussbaum's analysis implies that such respect should be relative to a judgement of the fitness of citizens ..."

    No, that is false. One more time: Nussbaum does not claim that humanistic ed (X) is NECESSARY for certain (broadly put) democratic values and capacities (Y). Her claim is that it tends to output them. That is compatible with (1) some who do X don't get Y and (2) some who don't do X get Y some other way.

    If you do not share that analysis of what Nussbaum claims then please provide exact textual references to claims in the book that support some alternative interpretation that you wish to defend.

    You have repeatedly made sweeping and false claims about a book you haven't read. Why do such a thing? Do you not find it more charitable to the author to read the book before judging it?


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!