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It is for the soul’s health that we engage in inquiry; right action is the indirect, one might almost say, the unintended, consequence of thinking things through. Indeed, the old understanding of liberal education is that its very liberality consists in its being pursued for its own sake, free from practical purposes—and that this way also happens, blessedly, to make for the most prudent practicality…

Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum (192 pages, Princeton University Press, 2010)

liberal educationMartha Nussbaum’s new book concerns “a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance.” The silent, cancer-like crisis she means to bring to public awareness by her “call to action,” her “manifesto,” is a new specter haunting the world—an extremely utilitarian, for-profit view of education that overlooks human values.

I am of two minds about her urgent anxiety, having lived through several such apocalyptic prognostications. She is undoubtedly right about the present trend: It was exemplified in President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address. In the climate of anxiety about global competitiveness and jobs at home, his educational proposals were exclusively addressed to science and technology, our “Sputnik moment.” Nonetheless, students insistently have souls, or at least psyches. So let me say up front that my sense of the most effective resistance to the global trend toward vocationalism is to soldier on locally, making sure that a liberal education is still available when it’s once again wanted.

Not for Profit is unabashedly political in the ideological sense; I say “unabashedly” though perhaps it should be “inadvertently.” I can’t make out whether Ms. Nussbaum, a distinguished professor in the University of Chicago’s Law School, Divinity School, and philosophy department, is fully aware just how politicized her vision of education is. I do agree with her in supposing that education should issue in civic participation, that it should be political. But a political education in my sense offers students the occasion for thinking through the grounds of public action, leaving the action itself as an entirely undetermined consequence, while a politicized education specifies the action intended by the teacher.

Her politics closely tracks liberal positions. For example, although in the beginning of the book she refers with approval to the Obama Administration, toward the end she expresses her disappointment in Obama’s educational policy for failing to support the humanities. This turn to disillusionment is strong of late among liberals who are disenchanted by the president’s pragmatism. It seems to me, however, that we are safer with the government encouraging science teaching than with an administration getting into the humanities.

What, then, are Not for Profit’s positive prescriptions? Democracy with a lowercase “d” is its underlying educational aim. So far, so good; here is, however, a special variety of American democracy—the one in which “diversity” trumps national identity. Along with this emphasis on diversity at home goes a strong insistence on education for “world citizenship.” What can be the meaning of a citizenship that is without local roots, without life lived together at length, without the rights and duties of suffrage—in short, without human immediacy or long-term responsibility? Isn’t it more visitorship than citizenship? The author has been involved in educational discussions in the Netherlands, Sweden, India, Germany, Italy, and Bangladesh, but who stayed to do the ungrateful, grinding job of curricular revision? And, there being nearly two hundred nations on our globe and more coming, how does one construct a truly global education? Her book cites John Dewey as saying that a child’s education should aim at global citizenship and that “economic history is more human, more democratic, and hence more liberalizing than political history.” But how are children to be instructed in economics, that most heavily theory-ridden of the human sciences? And all this in an environment in which civics courses have gone out of fashion and students of all ages don’t know the founding principles of their own republic very well. For my part, I’ve found those students who are most open to others’ ways are well grounded in their own. So in scope, matter, and effectiveness there seem to be practical problems with teaching world citizenship to children and undergraduates.

Nussbaum’s democratic education is global in scope, but it is also centered on the individual. It is based on a liberalism of the sensibility, devoted to the cultivation of sympathy and the eradication of opposed sentiments. (Here she draws on her own work on shame and disgust. In fact, a large proportion of her references are to her own writings.) The butt of this new sentimental education, then, is shame and aversion and their effect when exercised on subordinate groups. Quite apart from the question what our world would be if we learned not to feel ashamed of ourselves, not to shame others, not to express aversions—whether, for instance, we would eventually explode in irritation and make the world that much the uglier—is it really within a teacher’s brief to fix human nature in the image of her own sensibility? Is the suppression of shame really the way to self-respect? These are live questions, but what I’m dead set against is the educational control involved in rooting out human characteristics, no matter how velvet the glove on the social grip.

Indeed, the two educational heroes of the book, Rousseau and Dewey, were both, as my students would say, control freaks. Rousseau’s great educational romance Émile ends with the now adult and married pupil entering his teacher’s room—the teacher to whom his father had ceded Émile—to announce his own coming fatherhood. He begs Jean-Jacques to “continue to be the teacher of young teachers. Advise and control us; we shall be easily led; as long as I live I shall need you.” So that is what it all comes to! My idea is that teachers are there to be superseded, though they may enter a next role: equal friendship.

In the same vein, Dewey ends his manifesto, My Pedagogic Creed, with the assertion that a teacher in Dewey’s sense is “a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.” And then: “I believe in this way the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true Kingdom of God”—when I thought that in a democracy the social order was the responsibility of us ordinary citizens and our elected officials, and that we teachers were not ordained priests.

* * *

I have been speaking of liberal education, while Not for Profit is actually framed in terms of the humanities. Its subtitle is Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, which are now being strangled by withdrawal of funds and lack of encouragement. The book nowhere acknowledges that this quietus may be less a sudden garroting than a slow-motion suicide. The humanities began in the Renaissance as “the more human studies” opposed to theology, and this proud beginning may have carried the source of inanition within itself: How can a human enterprise that is committed to approaching divinity merely as an object of research not waste away in time? Through various phases, not all clear to me, but including the German mania for specialized research and the French disease of sophisticated unintelligibility, up to our own betrayal of literature to ideology, the humanities have been doing themselves in.

Nussbaum follows the current custom of identifying the humanities with the liberal arts (as distinct from liberal education), with the usual consequences. In the liberal arts tradition, philosophy was the culminating study, to which the liberal or freeing arts were ancillary. In the humanities, philosophy is one department among others, a set of methods and problems rather than a way of life, a field rife with arcane quibbles and refined controversies, not very attractive or relevant to laymen’s concerns. She is herself trained in this field, though her writings, whatever one may think of their tendencies, are anything but irrelevant to human existence. She avoids tangling with this, the most suicidal of the humanities, by interpreting it in this book as a pedagogy, that much bruited—about “Socratic method.” It incites students not so much to question—asking as to “questioning”; thus it has in its very conception a subversive tone: “The Socratic arguer is a confirmed dissenter.” This method only has a small overlap with the way of Socrates in the Platonic dialogues; it is a mode without its man. Socrates inquired into people’s notions so as to ground, not to subvert them, and he refuted more the thoughtlessness with which individuals hold their opinions than the beliefs by which communities live. Nussbaum regards Dewey as “the most influential and theoretically distinguished American practitioner of Socratic education.” She quotes him as saying that “ideas…devolve for the sake of the better control of action.” This is a pragmatist’s view which is surely the opposite of Socrates’, for whom dialectic first leads out of the world to a transcendent realm of ideas. And although knowledge of these ideas then leads back to good human action, it is, in the first instance, for the soul’s health that we engage in inquiry; right action is the indirect, one might almost say, the unintended, consequence of thinking things through. Indeed, the old understanding of liberal education is that its very liberality consists in its being pursued for its own sake, free from practical purposes—and that this way also happens, blessedly, to make for the most prudent practicality.

* * *

So here comes a last cavil. As I have noted, Martha Nussbaum is a strong proponent of moral education, not the old sort that inculcates the tough virtues but a new kind that tames the “antimoral emotions,” especially “the narcissism/insecurity/shame dynamic.” How could one disagree that parents and teachers should prevent bullying and meanness among children? But that schools, especially colleges and universities, should institute a sentimental training based on Freudian insights (as hers explicitly are) goes against my conviction that the purpose of liberal education is, now as ever, first to understand the human world and only afterwards to change it—presumably for the better.

Not for Profit shows signs of having been written in haste. Aside from several verbatim repetitions, it is couched in the bromidic, banal language of education reform (surely not normal to the author, a writer of learning and intellect), perhaps in the hope of making nonacademic converts by incantation. It bristles with the flabbily proscriptive “inappropriate,” the pedagogically vague “expose to,” the theologically dubious “creative,” the cagily condemnatory first person plural (the guilty “we” that implies “we minus me”), and the ineffectually coercive “we need to.” Surely she could have summoned a more nervy style for so urgent a call.

Will her new book do some good after all? Yes, if people attend to some of its saving graces. The objectionable notions I have singled out are mostly qualified along the way. Moreover, there is no business-bashing; on the contrary, business people are rightly represented as often particularly appreciative of the value of a liberal arts education. Attention to the fostering of imagination, appreciation of the philosophical capabilities of children as well as the curricular practices of Catholic colleges, advocacy of the return of foreign language study (that will be the day, even English grammar having vanished from many high schools!)—these are all welcome suggestions. Here is my hope: that Martha Nussbaum succeeds in properly alerting people to the problem without persuading them of her solutions.

This essay was originally published here in July 2012, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. Republished with gracious permission from the Claremont Review of Books (Volume 11, No. 3, 2011). 

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