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Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum (review)

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 326-329 | 10.1353/com.2013.0010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Martha C. Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010, xv + 158 pp.

Democratic education is under siege and could very well vanish from the American educational system. "Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education," writes Martha Nussbaum, "are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive" (2). "If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person's sufferings and achievements," continues Nussbaum. "The future of the world's democracies hangs in the balance" (2).

Not for Profit presents a passionate case for systems of education that result in "a more inclusive type of citizenship" (7)—rather than ones solely focused on profit-making. For Nussbaum, the humanities and the arts are the place where students acquire the "skills" necessary to keep democracies alive and become complete citizens—rather than "useful machines." If we continue to "ask our schools to turn out useful profit-makers rather than thoughtful citizens" (141-42), our world will become [End Page 326] one comprised of "technically trained people who do not know how to criticize authority, useful profit-makers with obtuse imaginations" (142). According to Nussbaum, "greedy obtuseness" and "technically trained docility" "threaten the very life of democracy itself " and "impede the creation of a decent world culture" (142).

From a wide angle, Nussbaum presents a compelling case for the importance of the humanities to the development of democratic culture. Critical thinking and reflection provide citizens with the capacity to see beyond local problems and loyalties and "imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person" (7). Thoughtful imagination enriches our relationships with others and "makes us human" (6). However, the single-minded quest for economic growth and financial profit tends to abandon these democratic values, particularly in times of severe economic crisis. As a result, democratic education gives way to education for profit in times of financial crisis.

"Distracted by the pursuit of wealth," comments Nussbaum, "we increasingly ask our schools to turn out useful profit-makers rather than thoughtful citizens" (141-42). Economic strains only exacerbate this situation and put pressure on institutions to abandon the liberal arts model of university education. This model, which flourishes in the United States and is unlike that of just about every other nation in the world, gives students the freedom to study a wide range of courses during the first two years of their university education. Rather than focusing on studying a single subject, students educated in the liberal arts model of education take an array of courses spanning the arts and sciences. The liberal arts model challenges "the mind to become active, competent, and thoughtfully critical in a complex world" (18) rather than encouraging students to passively assimilate "facts and cultural traditions." The result is a model of education that produces "informed, independent, and sympathetic democratic citizens" (18).

To this point, Nussbaum's argument for the importance of the humanities to democratic citizenship is relatively uncontroversial. Nussbaum draws heavily on the educational philosophies of John Dewey and Rabindranath Tagore to make her case, and in the process demonstrates many of the similarities between their positions. For admirers of Dewey's educational philosophy unfamiliar with the work of Tagore, her comparisons will be interesting. In addition, comparing highly-influential Indian and American educational philosophies in support of liberal arts education gives her general argument a more global feel, and makes her sub-arguments such as those against educational practices that merely "teach to the test" and those that advocate passive memorization (over active learning) even more compelling. Nonetheless, Nussbaum's case against education for profit somehow still takes a wrong turn.

Instead of simply arguing that active learning in the humanities is necessary to democratic education, Nussbaum also adds that it leads to economic growth—and [End Page 327] financial profit. A "flourishing economy," writes Nussbaum, "requires the same skills that support citizenship" (10). In her opinion, those who believe that passive pedagogies, technical training, and the elimination of the humanities curriculum lead to...