Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities, Martha C. Nussbaum (Princeton University Press) £15.95/$22.95 (hb)
If “liberal” is a dirty word then Martha Nussbaum is one of the most profane philosophers alive. An unashamed champion of the value of liberal democracy, Nussbaum is also an enthusiastic advocate of providing the kind of humanistic education that prepares students to be good democratic citizens. For decades she has written about the value of philosophy and the arts for Cultivating Humanity, to use the title of her 1997 book, and the importance of education for creating a humane, democratic world.
Now Nussbaum has boiled her case down to a “manifesto”, which in fewer than 150 pages makes her case to the wider world. As a model of public philosophy, it is exemplary. Anyone familiar with Nussbaum’s work will know that a lot is going on beneath the surface, and that her case has more and deeper roots than are on show here. However, she is always careful to argue for her conclusions as fully as is compatible with brevity and accessibility. There are no pronouncements from on high here, only strong arguments, forcefully made.
Nussbaum’s argument is a simple one. The good life is a full life, one which is engaged with more than just generating profit and achieving practical goals. Governments have to be concerned with these mundanely utilitarian matters, but, as the Indian educator Rabindranath Tagore is quoted as saying, “while making use of [material possessions], man has to be careful to protect himself from [their] tyranny.” This danger is ever present, which is why we need constantly to reaffirm the case for the humanities and humanistic education.
You know there’s something wrong when statements of the obvious begin to sound like idealistic dreams, but this is precisely how Nussbaum’s claims now sound to many ears. Maybe it’s my deep-rooted British cynicism, but even I found myself feeling queasy at Nussbaum’s unflinching faith in liberal values, despite agreeing almost entirely with them. Perhaps this is a sign that the orthodoxy of our time has become so pervasively pragmatic that even those who aspire to more feel a bit naïve for doing so.
The only disappointment about the book is that Nussbaum needlessly over-dramatises the extent to which the humanities are under threat. Her opening line is “we are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance.” The facts suggest something rather more modest. She herself accepts that “education of the type I recommend is still doing reasonably well in … the liberal arts portion of the U.S. college and university curricula.” She’s less convinced about Europe, but to take the UK as an example, data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest the humanities are actually doing pretty well. Compare the number of UK students studying in higher education in 1996/97 and 2008/2009 and you’ll see more than 50% more humanities students (defined here as history, archaeology, philosophy and theology), a near doubling of philosophy students, and 40% more language students. This is not just because the total number of students in higher education has risen. The proportion of British students studying philosophy in British universities has risen from 0.35% to 0.52%, while the proportion studying humanities subjects in general has leaped from 3.6% to 8.2% – far greater than can be accounted for by minor changes in how these subjects have been classified. The proportion studying languages has remained roughly the same, rising slightly.
Of course, Nussbaum’s argument is not just about numbers, but the manner of education and how it is valued. She sees an increase in “teaching to the test”, with more emphasis on learning facts and jumping through the hoops of examinations. There is some truth in this, but in Britain at least, there is far more use in schools of discussion, independent learning, and synoptic projects – all things Nussbaum approves of – than there used to be. She also ignores plentiful evidence that many outside education fully appreciate how a good life is more than one of just material success. The booming literature festival scene in the UK bears testament to a popular passion for art and ideas. Sculpture parks attract families who never used to go to museums and galleries. The picture is a much more mixed one than her gloomy prognosis suggests.
Intellectuals have always worried about encroaching barbarism and Nussbaum should have noticed that her complaints are not specific to the present age. There’s a clue in one of the quotations she uses: “We may have become more powerful by knowledge, but we attain fullness by sympathy … But we find that this education of sympathy is not only systemically ignored in schools, but is severely repressed.” True, perhaps, but also true when written by Tagore – in 1916.
She does, however, have a good answer to the charge of exaggeration. ”If it should turn out that things are less bad than I believe them to be,” she writes, “… we should do exactly what we would if we believed things were pretty bleak.” Nussbaum’s manifesto is worth putting into action, whether the humanities are in crisis or not.
Julian Baggini is editor-in-chief of tpm
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