Martha Nussbaum on Liberal Arts

Photo: Catalin Moise

Since publishing her book Cultivating Humanity in 1997, Martha Nussbaum has been a major voice in arguing for the importance of the liberal arts.

Her follow-up book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanitieswas published in 2010. In it Nussbaum sees education in an even more dire predicament, since it is increasingly defined in terms of its contribution to economic growth.

At a lecture on December 15th, as part of a conference sponsored by Universität Konstanz on the ‘Future of Humanities in a Multipolar World’, Nussbaum outlined the main points of this later book. Education that focuses on teaching technical skills while giving little attention to literature, history, and the arts, produces a population composed of little more than useful machines.

In Nussbaum’s words, a technical education leads to “moral abstruseness,” while a formation in the liberal arts has the greatest potential for producing complete, morally conscientious citizens.

As Nussbaum is aware, her argument is hardly a new one. These are the essential ideas of the Enlightenment and, as she herself argues, of Ancient Greece as well. What is novel about our contemporary circumstance is not the recognition that education in the humanities produces better human beings, but the typical and often persuasive claims of the opposing side.

An overview of the situation in the west shows that economically-developed countries are mostly sustainable democracies with a wide range of civil liberties and an active public sphere. Developing countries in Africa and Asia have understandably taken this as a model, concluding that economic improvement naturally correlates with every citizen having the right to, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Nussbaum points to China and certain states in India to disprove this claim, as they have great economies, but poor or non-existent democracies. The best way for a state to safeguard the capabilities of its citizens, which Nussbaum believes democracy is a necessary condition for, is not essentially economic growth but education.

During her lecture Nussbaum used psychological experiments by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo to show the individual’s natural tendency to obedience to authority and subordination to peer pressure. Nussbaum suggested that such habits are usually what allow moral atrocities to happen, and are easily conceivable eventualities in an economically-developed state with poorly educated citizens.

Human nature overcomes its malleability and habit of obedience through a liberal arts education. The latter has a unique capacity to teach students critical thinking rather than merely training them. Nussbaum expounded on different areas of this kind of education that she said should be attended to from the very start of a child’s schooling.

First among them is history, which should be taught with an international scope in order to minimize the feeling of strangeness induced by exposure to different cultures. She also offers a substantial defense of the role of literature and art, decisive in constructing what she calls the “narrative imagination.”

This makes one fully capable of stepping into another’s shoes, imagining the perspective of the other. Ultimately, the ability to identify imaginatively with people from varied cultures and societies encourages students to treat those peoples with the utmost respect.

One must consider whether Nussbaum overvalues the power of education. Many would be hard-pressed to say that education can ever be overvalued, but Nussbaum has a particular type of education in mind, primarily an academic one. The education that children receive from their parents, that individuals receive from their friends, that the pious receive from their religion, is often more determinative of one’s moral character than their academic rearing.

In order to produce like-minded egalitarian, cosmopolitan citizens it may be preferable that children and young adults receive most of their moral direction from school rather than church or home. For some reason, however, most in the liberal state cringe at the idea of an academic education configuring one’s moral constitution.

I fully support Nussbaum’s advocacy of the liberal arts over purely technical education, but one must acknowledge that the institutionalization of the former is harder to achieve, precisely because of its power to confront the values we hold nearest and dearest.

 by Michael David Harris (AY’12, USA)

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