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Martha Nussbaum’s Conspirators

When I worked at the National Endowment for the Arts, I attended dozens of small and large meetings that brought together arts/humanities educators and non-arts/humanities people–state and local officials, foundation personnel, and, occasionally, business people.  I watched Chairman Dana Gioia, Deputy chairman Eileen Mason, and Education Director David Steiner make the case for arts in the curriculum and in out-of-school programs on multiple grounds, and the audience responded sympathetically every time.  In one episode, Gioia gathered some 5th graders from Rafe Esquith’s famed Shakespeare program in Los Angeles to perform pieces from the Bard for members of Congress on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats, who in turn donned costume themselves and relived their days of high school drama class.  In another meeting in the Senate office building, then-PA senator Rick Santorum and then-UT senator Bob Bennett listened to Gioia and then rose to give a spirited defense of arts education and the Arts Endowment.

This is one reason why when I read Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, some of her assertions regarding business leaders and politicians seem to come out of nowhere.  The thesis of the book is that education has been distorted by mercenary values, profits and utility, leaving the arts and humanities, and the democratic culture they sustain, weakened and jeopardized.

When she presents that thesis, she doesn’t frame the problem as a misguided emphasis on prosperity and competitiveness because of legitimate concerns about U.S. competitiveness in the global marketplace.  Nor does she summon much detailed local evidence such as revisions in state standards away from the arts and toward STEM fields.  Nor does she interview any people advocating that unfortunate shift, or even examine closely their arguments.  Instead, she offers general assertions that an anti-humanities ideology is under way, and that it must be stopped.

Indeed, she goes so far as to assert that the people pushing “education for profit” aren’t people sincerely trying to address problems with low STEM achievement among high school and college students, and they aren’t simply anti-intellectual figures who neglect arts and humanities content.  Instead, something sinister is happening.  Her outline of it appears in several pages on the situation in India, but she sprinkles comments about the U.S. situation as well, implying that the same plot is taking place in our country as well.  Here is Nussbaum:

“What about the arts and literature, so often valued by democratic educators?  An education for economic growth will, first of all, have contempt for these parts of a child’s training, because they don’t look like they lead to personal or national economic advancement.”

“Contempt” is a strong word, and one would think that Nussbaum would provide some examples, but not one follows.

There’s more:

“But educators for economic growth will do more than ignore the arts.  They will fear 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.”

There we get to the root motive for the decline of the humanities and arts in secondary and higher education.  Apostles of “growth” don’t want an informed, critical populace.  They want docile and insensitive, but proficient workers, people whose out-of-workplace interests stick to self-involvement, their narrow needs and unconcern for social injustice satisfied by the very system that promotes the latter.

Humanities coursework cultivates “sensitive thinking about distribution  or social inequality,” and so it must be squelched for the for-profit outlook to thrive.  It’s a conspiracy.

But I’ve never heard anybody who encourages more investment in STEM fields, who pushes students into more career-oriented majors, and who worries over U.S. competitiveness express any words denigrating the arts and humanities.  I’ve sat in on lots of curriculum and standards meetings and panels and never been able to discern anything conspiratorial in the program.  Once I interviewed the superintendent of West Point for a magazine story on curriculum in the military colleges.  When I told a colleague about the trip, the colleague blurted, “What do you mean–they don’t want any of those soldiers to think!”  But West Point has a rich humanities curriculum requiring more history, philosophy, and literature than just about any other school, and the superintendent reinforced the value of the humanities in the training of soldiers with enthusiasm.  Business leaders I’ve spoken with bow in deference to Shakespeare et al.

Who, then, is Professor Nussbaum talking about?

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