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Global Affairs

What are the Humanities For?



By Stephen John

Martha Nussbaum’s latest book opens with a chilling warning: we face “a worldwide crisis in education” of “massive proportions and grave global significance”. The crisis is that the arts and humanities are losing their place in the curriculum at all levels of education. Indeed, even “the humanistic aspects of science and social science – the imaginative, creative aspect and the aspect of rigorous critical thought” are being lost. This is to be lamented, according to Nussbaum, because the proper goal of education is the cultivation of citizens who can play a full and active role in democratic societies, and such cultivation requires exposure to the arts and humanities. Such concerns are, she thinks, not reflected in contemporary thinking about education, which stresses the teaching of narrow technical skills, and associated “thin market norms”, in the name of economic growth. Nussbaum proposes an alternative to the market paradigm, according to which education should be child-centred, and include a full and proper understanding of global history and economics, training in Socratic reasoning skills, and creative engagement in artistic activities. Such an education will create citizens who can feel compassion for others, whom they also respect, while making wise judgments about political issues which reflect a broader understanding of global interconnectedness without an exaggerated respect for tradition. As a side effect, such citizens will also be more economically productive.

Clearly, no-one could reasonably hope to prove all of these claims within a book of 170 pages. This volume is, I assume, intended more as a political act, rather than as a scholarly tract. Furthermore, I find myself more-or-less in agreement with what I take to be Nussbaum’s key political aim: to ensure a place for the humanities and arts in schools and universities. As such, it is tempting to overlook this book’s deficiencies in the name of political expediency, or to defend Nussbaum by stressing that her book is polemic, rather than careful study. Unfortunately, the entire point of this book is to defend an ideal of “Socratic critical inquiry”, where “only the nature of the argument counts”. Even taking into account issues of genre, Nussbaum’s arguments are bad. They rest on sweeping sociological generalisations, confuse different concepts, and fail to engage with possible criticism. 

A liberal arts education -- good for those who can afford it, but does it save democracy? (Photo: ECLA, used under a Wikimedia Creative Commons Licence)

One key flaw is Nussbaum’s tendency to speak ex cathedra on extremely complex empirical topics. For example, at one point, she describes the Indian state of Gujarat as “well known for its combination of technological sophistication with docility and group-think”. Not content with stereotyping fifty million people, she later asserts that the deadly anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 were the result of “no critical thinking in the public schools and a concerted focus on technical ability”, combined with “propaganda purveyed … in state history textbooks”. To be fair, this extremely tendentious causal claim is supported by a single reference (to her own earlier work). However, it is surely an egregious simplification of an extremely complex social phenomenon. The sweeping generalisation mentioned above is not, it should be stressed, a slip into Orientalism; we also read, for example, that European academics (all?) “have no training” in teaching and so, “would be horrible” at small group teaching. Similar examples abound in the text. I suppose that such exaggeration might be justified by saying that Nussbaum’s examples are not intended as literal truths, but as vivid summaries, designed to illustrate, rather than support, her more theoretical claims. These more general claims about the declining prestige of humanistic education, and about the proper role and value of education are interesting, and of more general import. In the rest of this review, then, I shall resist the temptation to list implausible claims and focus on two key issues: precisely what Nussbaum thinks the current crisis is and her account of why we need the humanities. 

Nussbaum seems to diagnose three threats to humanistic education: first, an emphasis on the teaching of narrow technical skills in the name of maximising GNP; second, attempts to twist the teaching of history and social science to stoke nationalist and ethnic agendas; third, an increasing emphasis on standardised testing. I agree that a narrow, economically-driven curriculum, a desire to stoke nationalist sentiment and a focus on bureaucratically tractable outcome measures each poses a potential threat to humanistic educational ideals. I was far less convinced by Nussbaum’s apparent assumption that these three threats are all, somehow, inter-related. There might be Marxist arguments that capitalism survives best when the workers are stoked up to their eyeballs on religion and their energies focused on ethnic, rather than class warfare. However, on the face of it, inculcating rampant ethnic nationalism in workers seems in tension with creating workers who will play a docile role in multi-national corporations. Furthermore, it is unclear how either the neo-liberal or ethnic-traditionalist trends which, according to Nussbaum, threaten humanistic education relate to her real bugbear: standardised testing and quantifiable measures of educational “output”. Whether hatred has been inculcated is rather hard to measure; it may be easier to measure whether people have marketable skills, but it is unclear that the market itself demands excessive testing. Distinguishing different trends which might threaten humanistic education is not merely of theoretical interest. Rather, even if Nussbaum’s book is part of a political struggle, it is important to recognise that different societies face different problems: Indian academics who lament the BJP-driven rewriting of textbooks face different challenges to UK academics who wish to resist proposals for allocating research funding on the basis of “impact”. 

Furthermore, in in . Nussbaum herself notes that those who value economic growth might often have reason to value humanistic education. However, she seems to overlook deeper grounds of agreement. Nussbaum draws a very sharp boundary – between an “old”, “growth-based” model of development and society with an associated narrow technocratic model of education – and her proposed alternative, which sees the promotion of capabilities “ranging from life, health, and bodily integrity to political liberty, political participation, and education” as the goal of a good society. One obvious worry about this distinction is that it seems to overlook alternative mixed models of development, which, arguably, actually motivate many policy-makers. Furthermore, and more seriously, Nussbaum also seems to overlook why people might adopt a growth-based model of development, and, in particular, how such a model might be compatible with her own concerns. Even if the main goal of education is to promote citizens who can contribute to political debate, and this requires exposure to the humanities, such citizens might democratically agree on the value of economic growth. Conversely, full democratic participation might be a dream in a country where all are extremely poor. Nussbaum writes as if we are faced with a stark choice, but it is unclear that the choice is as stark as she paints it, and even that we have a choice to make at all. Along similar lines, Nussbaum seems to ignore the fact that even if actual bureaucracies have adopted stupid and self-defeating measures of educational attainment leading to what she calls a “pedagogy of force-feeding for standardised examinations”, there are excellent democratic reasons to seek to measure and assess the success of publicly-funded education. 

In short, even if, as a matter of fact, humanistic education is under threat from a variety of directions, and even if, as a matter of principle we think that growth-based models of development are incomplete or problematic, the threats to humanistic education are not all necessarily motivated by concerns which are deeply incompatible with humanist or democratic values. Again, I stress, these claims are not solely of scholastic interest; rather, they point to a serious problem with using this book for the political purpose of defending the humanities. On the one hand, Nussbaum tells us that training in the humanities produces citizens who “understand other traditions from within” and who can “think well about political issues affecting the nation”. On the other hand, her own arguments seem ill-suited to forming political alliances based on an understanding of others’ concerns. Not only does this tension rather undercut Nussbaum’s own assertions, but it makes it unclear who Nussbaum believes will be convinced by her arguments; were I a supporter of increased technical education, of the BJP or of standardised testing, I would find nothing in this book which spoke to my concerns. 

One resolution of this tension is that Nussbaum is preaching to the converted: rousing humanists to fight their corner, and providing them with tools with which to do so. The tool Nussbaum provides is an argument that the arts and humanities are valuable because their teaching is part of an education for “a more inclusive type of citizenship”. This is an interesting proposal, because many humanists seem tempted to defend teaching and research in their subjects by appeal to something like the intrinsic value of a humanistic education, and, as such, to resist attempts to justify curricula and research programmes in terms of “impact”. Nussbaum seems to suggest, however, that, rather than resist talk of impact, humanists should, instead, challenge prevailing conceptions of what constitutes impact. In general, this strikes me as an excellent proposal: given that continued teaching and research in the arts and humanities depends to a large degree on taxpayers’ money, it seems incumbent on humanists that they can provide a justification for their subjects which clearly relates to political concerns and demands. What worries me, however, is that Nussbaum seems to confuse two different issues. The first issue is whether we should conceptualise the good society in narrowly economistic terms or in broader terms, which include a concern that citizens are able to make reasoned contributions to debate. The second issue is what we should teach in Schools and Universities. Nussbaum’s argument seems, often, to run together these two questions, because she seems to assume that there is some very strong relationship between what we teach and the health of democracy. While I agree that there might be some relationship here, I was uncertain precisely what Nussbaum sees this relationship as, and without further specification of the precise relationship between curricula and democracy, it is unclear how best to use Nussbaum’s argument. 

An obvious worry here is that it seems that we have excellent inductive evidence that those highly trained in the arts and humanities can, often, fall very far short of Nussbaum’s ideal citizens. This is a point she herself notes in a brief aside on the anti-semitism of Wagner and Humperdinck. Furthermore, to choose an example Nussbaum does not mention, we might note that Nineteenth Century English public schools and Oxbridge turned out many men who had an excellent education in the classics, but who went on to administer a brutal Empire. In short, it is unclear that exposure to the arts and humanities is sufficient for crafting good citizens. In response to such concerns, it might be suggested that it is not exposure per se, but the right kind of teaching which suffices for good citizens. However, if this is Nussbaum’s thought, then it is unclear how useful her arguments are for practical purposes, given that, as she herself sometimes seems to acknowledge, there is a huge gap between actual current educational practice and her proposals; even if the curriculum set out in this volume would create a new kind of citizen, we might worry that this does not represent a practicable ideal. 

An alternative way of reading Nussbaum’s arguments would be as claiming that some exposure to the arts and humanities is necessary for maintaining democratic societies; in a rousing phrase, we read that “knowledge is no guarantee of good behaviour, but ignorance is a virtual guarantee of bad behaviour”. In a nearby passage, we also read that in the absence of humanistic education human interactions are “likely to be mediated by the thin norms of market exchange in which human lives are seen primarily as instruments for gain”. Leaving to one side the complicated issue of why Nussbaum assumes that we are faced with a stark choice between markets and democracy, the general thought she expresses here may seem plausible. However, they are exceptionally hard to pin down once we recognise that the vast majority of the world’s population has had little education; either Nussbaum must think that most of the world’s population are likely to engage in “bad behaviour” or she must think that the merest touch of a humanistic education can avoid “bad behaviour”. Neither of these claims strikes me as particularly plausible (furthermore, the claim that the particular form which the bad behaviour of those not educated in the humanities must take is a tendency to see others as instruments for economic benefit seems completely implausible: to return to some of the issues mentioned above, whatever else went wrong in Gujarat it was not that Hindus saw Muslims in merely economic terms). 

It is a favourite trick of philosophers to say that X is neither necessary nor sufficient for Y, and, therefore, that there is no interesting relationship between X and Y. This is a bad trick, and not one I want to play here; there might well be a relationship between humanistic education and democratic citizenship, even if that relationship is not simple. Intuitively, such a claim seems plausible – how could people educated in the arts and humanities fail to be better at arguing over policy? – and politically appealing – what even minimally enlightened policy-maker could disagree that strengthening democracy is an important end? My worry is that Nussbaum provides no way of spelling out such concerns. Furthermore, to raise a final worry, it also seems that one aspect of Nussbaum’s approach is likely to be particularly problematic in this regard: her insistence that all education from the kindergarten to undergraduate study should be understood in terms of the creation of better citizens. 

This strategy is, unfortunately, rather ambiguous. It is unclear whether Nussbaum believes that the needs of democracy demand that all citizens receive at least an undergraduate level education (with a strong focus on the humanities, and so on) or that the needs of democracy demand that all those who receive a University education are trained in critical thinking and so on. The first claim seems excessively utopian; were Nussbaum engaged in what political philosophers call “ideal theory”, then the claim that democracy requires that all citizens be educated until 21 might be a valid claim. As a basic assumption in what is essentially a polemical work, however, the claim seems, at best, to engender despair. Even in a developed country such as the UK, fewer than 50% of 18-year-olds attend University. Matters are, of course, even worse in Nussbaum’s beloved India, where female literacy is about 54%. Not only do such facts make the normative claim that all must be educated to University level seem excessively utopian, but they also make it difficult to understand the precise relationship between education and democracy; clearly, if democratic citizenship requires a University education (with a stress on the humanities), we are, and always have been, a long way from democracy. 

Maybe, then, Nussbaum’s argument is intended to be that, for as long as citizens are educated, their education should stress humanistic and humane virtues. This strikes me as a pleasant enough claim, but deeply problematic if the value of such virtues is because of the ways in which they equip citizens to function in democracies. After all, if some do not receive the training in democratic virtues accorded to others, then it seems all too easy to argue that, under real world conditions, it is the well-educated (specifically, those well-educated in the humanities) who should hold greater power in political debate. It is undoubtedly true that in modern societies, it is the well educated who tend to hold real power, and, as such, it may well be true that it is they who most need critical skills and the virtue of tolerance. However, to make such an argument is, in effect, to acquiesce in a form of oligarchy, where what really matters is that decisions made in Whitehall or Wall Street or the World Bank are reasoned and humane. (In this regard, it is a striking feature of Nussbaum’s argument that she thinks that it is a good thing that many US Universities rely on private funds from alumni who appreciate their “liberal arts” training, and a bad thing that UK Universities must rely on government funding. She is also keen to stress how enlightened businesspeople appreciate their humanities education, and employ others with a similar education. A strange undercurrent of the book, then, is that the real dangers to the humanities are posed by small-minded policy-makers and close-minded parents, rather than by big business.) Were Nussbaum asked to clarify her position, I have no doubt she would deny that it has such oligarchic implications. However, it strikes me that there is an important distinction between viewing the ends of compulsory primary and secondary education in terms of the promotion of democratic capabilities, and also viewing University, non-compulsory education in the same way. Even if there is a plausible argument that humanistic training needs to be part of the curriculum all the way through the education system, it seems that we need to be careful that this argument is compatible with the values of democracy more generally. 

This book has an important message: if we think that a good society is one characterised by relationships of democratic equality, rather than merely by the maximisation of GNP, then this should be reflected in debates over educational policy. In turn, such a framework seems to suggest that we should value the arts and humanities, as they can play an important role in shaping citizens’ capabilities. Unfortunately, what Nussbaum fails to provide us with is a clear sense of how we should develop this argument, who opposes it, and how we should respond to such opposition. Furthermore, in failing to do any of this, this book leaves an unsavoury impression that its contents belie its conclusions. 

Martha C. Nussbaum: Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities
Princeton University Press, Princeton 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4008-3422-8
Hardcover, 177 pages, US$22.95

Stephen John is PHG Foundation Lecturer in Philosophy and Research Fellow at Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge.

(c) 2010 The Berlin Review of Books.


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