The Humanities, Part 2

In a recent post on the humanities, I wrote on a theme I’ve touched on several times since I first began blogging for Brainstorm—the declining interest in the liberal arts, and more particularly, the humanities. I noted the obvious—that the thrust of higher education is away from the study of the liberal arts toward study of the useful sciences. Students, parents, administrators, education consultants, legislators and business leaders are now loudly clamoring for a measurable return on the investment in a college degree—by which they mean, “Show us precisely how this college degree pays off in terms of a job and an income.” The liberal arts—and again, particularly the humanities part of them—are having trouble playing by these new rules.

This past year, Martha Nussbaum, the well-known philosopher and University of Chicago professor, striving to escape the pressure on the liberal arts to prove themselves in the economic realm, proposed an alternative idea. In her book  Not for Profit (Princeton University Press, 2010), she argues that the liberal arts—and again, especially the humanities part of them—are necessary for making good citizens in a healthy, modern democracy.

Nussbaum’s democratic citizen carries three main traits: He or she is well informed and knows the facts, uses critical thinking by applying logic to detect bad reasoning, and possesses a “narrative imagination,” making it possible to imagine and feel compassion for another person’s situation. While not disputing that part of the purpose of education is to prepare students for employment, Nussbaum argues that an equal, if not more important, purpose is to prepare them to become the kind of citizen she describes.  Otherwise, we’re headed for “nations of technically trained people who do not know how to criticize authority; useful profit-makers with obtuse imaginations.” To Nussbaum, then, the most dangerous threat to democracy lies in the tendency of people to defer to authority.

Nussbaum singles out the Socratic method for special praise. Socratic learning—at the heart of many of the humanities—encourages students to question traditional assumptions and authoritative voices, and teaches them rational argumentation. The Socratic method alone isn’t sufficient to the formation of good citizens, however. Nussbaum argues that such endeavors as dance are necessary to expose students to ways in which they can imagine and feel compassion for the plight of others—a prerequisite if democratic citizens are to tackle the injustices of the modern world.

While Nussbaum’s argument for the humanities never goes so far as to equate their study with moral goodness, it comes awfully close. All who love a liberal arts education, and especially the humanities part of it, find it hard to relinquish the idea that it helps make human beings better in a moral or ethical sense. Alas, morals and ethics—including the part involving empathy and compassion for others—depend more on habits and behaviors, nursed in the family and community from infancy onward, than on any particular kind of education. It can’t be repeated often enough that wicked people can be learned aesthetes, and ignorant people kind and virtuous.  A moral education is not the same as education in the liberal arts.

Nussbaum is convinced that practice in Socratic thinking leads to good citizenship, and, surprisingly, for a classics scholar of her stature, she sees it as a benign exercise that comes without danger. She passes lightly over the fact that it was Athenian democracy, not aristocracy, that executed Socrates. Introduced too early in an education, or introduced to a student without the temperament to handle it, or used by professors intent on bludgeoning old beliefs to make way for new ones, Socratic thinking results not in wisdom about how to handle uncertainty, but in sloppy relativism, or worse, nihilism. Or simply an enervated intellectual stamina—a situation where young people lose confidence in the power of reason to resolve anything.

The capacity and willingness to criticize authority is good only conditionally—when the person who possesses it is capable of holding back from destroying worthwhile traditions that might not be able to withstand withering Socratic critiques.

The liberal-arts education will survive, but not because it can be justified on utilitarian grounds. It will survive because it is beautiful, and too many people love it to let it die.

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