Chronicle of Higher Ed Examines Nussbaum's Take on the Humanities

The Humanities, Part 2
Laurie Fendrich
Chronicle of Higher Edcation: Brainstorm
January 20, 2011

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.