- Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities
In Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities Martha Nussbaum joins many observers in arguing that the arts and humanities are under siege, threatened by budget cuts and a growing emphasis on professional training. When budget cuts do not eliminate university programs in the arts and humanities, they swell class size to the point that the traditional hallmarks of a humanistic education—class discussion, essay examinations, research assignments demanding critical thinking—become untenable. Instead, PowerPoint lecturing and multiple-choice exercises dominate, reinforcing the rote learning that standardized testing has already made the norm in K-12 education. A recent Wall Street Journal article, "How to Get a Real Education," puts the stress on vocational preparation this way: "Forget art history and calculus. Most students need to learn how to run a business."
Nussbaum reminds us what we lose when we forget about art history. Drawing on the writings of John Dewey, Rabindranath Tagore, and her own earlier work, Nussbaum argues persuasively that democracy needs the humanities. Studying the humanities cultivates the qualities that democratic citizenship depends on, among them empathy, respect for differences, critical thinking, and appreciation of complexity. Taken to an extreme, education for economic growth does not simply dispense with the arts and humanities, it fears them: "For a cultivated and developed sympathy is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore inequality. It is easier to treat people as objects to be manipulated if you have never learned any other way to see them" (p. 23). By sharpening moral consciousness, the arts and humanities nurture creative, questioning "citizens of the world," not "docile bureaucrats" (p. 23).
To her credit, Nussbaum holds out for the full social and ethical value of the arts and humanities as well as making a vocational case for them. As Nussbaum notes, business executives often support hiring liberal arts graduates over students with narrower training because businesses, too, need creativity, critical [End Page 399] thinking, and intercultural competence. Although the economic contributions of the arts and humanities are important, even more is at stake, as Nussbaum eloquently shows.
Again to her credit, Nussbaum intends her book to be "a call to action" (p. 122), not just cheerleading. As a call to action, it runs up against the familiar problem of preaching only to the choir. Most readers of Not for Profit, not to mention most subscribers to Philosophy and Literature, will already agree with most of what she has to say but will wonder how to act on their conviction—and Nussbaum's—that we abandon the arts and humanities at our peril. The problem becomes persuading others who think differently, whether Tea Party legislators or bottom-line-driven administrators. Labeling antihumanists morally obtuse and undemocratic may be emotionally satisfying and even accurate, but it does not undo the damage they are doing.
Nussbaum approaches this challenge by asking the excellent questions, "What is it about human life that makes it so hard to sustain democratic institutions based on equal respect and the equal protection of the laws, and so easy to lapse into hierarchies of various types—or, even worse, projects of violent group animosity? What forces make powerful groups seek control and domination?" (p. 28). In one of her most thought-provoking chapters, "Educating Citizens: The Moral (and Anti-Moral) Emotions," Nussbaum locates the answers to these questions within each individual, more precisely, in the tug-of-war within each of us between "compassion and respect" on the one hand, and "fear, greed, and narcissistic aggression" on the other (p. 29). Sources as different as Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile and experimental psychology help Nussbaum sketch a narrative of human development that makes democracy precarious but still possible. In her account, families, schools, and the surrounding culture can come together to develop individuals with the compassion, humility, and generosity to make democracy work.
"This is a huge agenda" (p. 46), as Nussbaum admits, and in...