Toward a Plausible Rationale for the Humanities

Continuing from my previous post: So if Martha Nussbaum’s manifesto, Not for Profit, is not persuasive—and I don’t find it to be so—then how do we justify the continued existence of the humanities? I think we need to start by recognizing that we can’t rehabilitate the humanities if we try to start that process at the college level, and we can’t do it simply by nodding in approval at Nussbaum’s commencement speech-like exhortations.

Nussbaum’s utopian vision, as I read it, is a progressive democracy populated and ruled by independent-minded, critically-thinking citizens who have honed their skills by studying the humanities. It’s a vision informed by her earlier books, in particular The Fragility of Goodness and Cultivating Humanity, and I think it’s admirable, but it would require nothing short of a revolution, and I’m not convinced that one is possible.

In his remarkable book, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, Joe Bageant cites Malcolm X’s observation that the first step in a revolution is a massive education of the people. Bageant elaborates: “We [educated progressives] are going to have to explain everything about progressivism to . . . the working poor because [their] lives have always been successfully contained . . .  by God rhetoric, money, cronyism and the corporate state.”

Unfortunately, the obstacles are enormous. As Bageant himself points out, the traditional class war—between the rich and the poor—has been supplanted by a new class war—between the educated and the uneducated. So making that argument to America’s working poor (34 million people by the government’s own count) won’t be easy because, by and large, they don’t want to be persuaded. Bageant even goes so far as to argue that, in recent decades, the working poor vote Republican (i.e., against their economic interests) out of resentment toward what they perceive as the snobbery of educated progressives.

Nussbaum constantly extols critical thinking and independence as the virtues essential to a vibrant and compassionate democracy. But our current K-12 education system endorses exactly the opposite habits of mind. In the appendix to their classic book Schooling in Capitalist America, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis present an extraordinary table correlating the grade point averages of high-school students with their various personality traits. Aside from “aggressiveness,” the two personality traits guaranteed to lower a student’s GPA are, you guessed it: creativity and independence. What are the traits that raise GPAs? The top 5 are “perseverant,” “dependable,” “consistent,” “identifies with school,” and “empathizes orders (that is, anticipates teachers’ instructions without needing to have them repeated).”

Thus, our nation’s schools are cultivating habits of mind that will turn students into docile, unimaginative young adults who are company men long before they ever become workers. Add to that the damaging consequences of No Child Left Behind. The “good” students under the age of 25 are experts in test-taking strategies. They are never taught to question the content of the tests, which are determined by the corporate state. And then we college educators inherit these kids in gray flannel suits. Is it any wonder that they steer clear of the humanities, the one precinct of college that actually encourages creativity and independence?

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