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Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities


Martha C. Nussbaum, Professor of Law and Ethics the University of Chicago and author of Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.
Photo Credit: 
Robin Holland.

Author and philosopher Martha Nussbaum says a declining emphasis on study of the humanities could lead to a world of “useful profit makers with no imaginations.”

From the United States to India and the United Kingdom, humanities and arts programs are being cut in all levels of education. This trend, says Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics (who also has appointments in philosophy, classics, and political science), at the University of Chicago, has the potential to create a generation of citizens who are ill equipped to participate in a democratic society. While speaking to an audience at Stanford’s Cubberley Auditorium on February 2, 2012, Professor Nussbaum, author of Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, warned that education leaders are being short-sited in their efforts to stay economically competitive. Increasingly viewed as “useless” by politicians, humanities and arts programming is being replaced by technical training courses in sciences, engineering, and technology in the name of economic gain. While technical skills are important for the future health of nations, Nussbaum said  that they alone do not make for a fully educated student. Without a liberal arts background, Nussbaum said, the world would be filled with “narrow, technically trained workers, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition and authority, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements.” These so-called soft-skills are essential for developing a “decent world culture,” and maintaining healthy democracies, she said. Study of history and culture imparts the ability to approach global issues as a citizen of the world. Study of philosophy teaches the critical thinking skills that help us reason about our choices. Participation in the creative arts fosters an empathetic capacity, and Nussbaum said, “allows us to imagine the challenges facing someone unlike ourselves.” Nussbaum’s presentation was sponsored by the Bowen H. McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford. In the opening remarks Center Director Debra Satz said that now is the time to evaluate the role of humanities in the curriculum, when a tsunami of change is headed towards education in the form of online learning. Satz a professor of philosophy and the senior associate dean for the humanities at Stanford, later added that Nussbaum’s comments “underscore the importance of the humanities in supporting a democratic culture and society. The humanities are not frills, but call on and develop the critical skills we need to live in a diverse and complex world.”

Study of history, culture, language, and religion prepares students for political engagement

Many business and political pundits espouse an education for economic growth model, in which all gains are measured financially, Nussbaum explained. In the trickle-down model, education is targeted towards increases in gross domestic product, with the expectation that all facets of a society will benefit. But Nussbaum said, “empirical evidence does not show that correlation.” She cited several states in India that focused economic development efforts on technical workers. Although there was genuine economic improvement for the few “elite” workers, other residents remained illiterate and without improved access to education. Nussbaum went on to outline an alternative to economic-centric development called the “human development paradigm” or HDP, a new model of education that is gaining traction in a number of countries. Issued by the United National Development Programme, the HDP model emphasizes fundamental opportunities that each person should have access to in areas of life and health, political participation and education. Citizens would need certain skills learned from a humanities education to attain the “threshold level of opportunity” defined by HDP. Those skills include the ability to deliberate about political issues and the ability to reflect, argue, debate, and to think of the nation as a whole and as part of a larger world order. As knowledge of history, culture, language, and religion can prepare students for political engagement, it can also help them cope with the struggles inherent to the human psyche. Experiments have shown the surprising degree to which people are prone to peer pressure, bullying, and deference to authority. Studies such as professor Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment illustrate how little it takes for us to quickly dehumanize our fellow man and see him as subordinate or as “the other.”

Debate and discussion build the confidence required to be a whistle blower or innovator

Returning to recommendations for a well-rounded liberal arts curriculum for “decent citizenship,” Nussbaum quoted Socrates, who argued that democracy needs citizens who can think for themselves and reason together about their choices rather than just deferring to authority. Young people today, Nussbaum said, will only have a hope of holding politicians accountable if they know how to think critically about what they hear, “testing its logic and imagining alternatives to it.” Accountability is a rising trend in the current global business culture too.  Employees are encouraged to come forward with questions, ideas and problems. Nussbaum said that the discussion and debate format found in humanities classrooms builds the confidence required to be a whistle blower or innovator. Referencing the Chicago Children’s Choir for low-income youth in her hometown, Nussbaum described how participation in the arts sparks curiosity for unfamiliar. “By learning to sing music from another time and place the children learn about their role in their community and in the world.” In closing, Nussbaum reiterated the idea that arts and humanities education such as this not only “shape people who are able to see other human beings as full people with thoughts and feelings,” but also build “nations that are able to overcome fear and suspicion in favor of sympathetic and well reasoned debate.” An audio excerpt of Professor Nussbaum’s talk is available on the Center for Ethics in Society website: By Corrie Goldman