Nussbaum Talks to Harper's About Her New Book

Not for Profit: Six Questions for Martha Nussbaum
Scott Horton
June 1, 2010

Is America making a mistake by orienting its education system towards national economic gain? In her new book, Not for Profit, University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum makes the case that the humanities are central to the education of citizens of a democratic state. I put six questions to Nussbaum about her book.

1. In India, advocates of Hindutva argue for education that extols the virtue of Hindu religion and ethnicity. In America, forces of the religious right—who now constitute a majority on the Texas school book commission—want history books that portray America as a Christian nation and offer a friendlier view of the Confederacy. You view these forces as a severe threat to modern education. Explain how you come to your view.

I want to separate two different aspects of the Hindutva scheme of education (now fortunately in eclipse in India). The first problem is that history was being presented in a distorted way, with a lot of factual errors, in order to produce students who had contempt for Muslims and who did not understand the history of their own highly plural and tolerant religion. But the second fault lies deeper: it is in the dedication to memorization, rote learning, and regurgitation that has characterized Indian education for a long time. If you learn bad facts but also learn how to assess historical evidence and criticize bad arguments, that skill will over time get the better of the bad facts. It is in conjunction with a pedagogy of passivity that the bad facts are particularly dangerous. The second flaw is not peculiar to the Hindu right. Indian liberals have also not done nearly enough to promote critical thinking or to try to devise textbooks that impart skills of reasoning, the analysis of evidence, and so forth. Some groups have tried this, but their efforts are not generally efficacious.

In Texas we clearly are dealing with bad facts. The representation of the religion of the Framers, for example, omits the fact that many were Deists, skeptical rationalists who rejected all traditional religion. More important, it omits the strenuous opposition of Madison, the primary architect of our Constitution, to any form of religious establishment, including that of Christianity itself. And it omits, I take it, the fact that for this reason our Constitution makes no mention of God. (I discuss all this in my book Liberty of Conscience.) Madison saw religious establishment as involving an implicit hierarchy, which ranked some citizens above others, and he thought that this sort of hierarchy was intolerable in a democratic society based on the idea of human equality. He even worried about things as apparently innocuous as a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. Unlike Jefferson, who refused to issue one because he did not want to associate the nation with religion, Madison did issue one as president, but he later said that he regretted that decision. So all of this should be studied, and at the same time students are most welcome to study the ideas of people like Patrick Henry, George Mason, and George Washington, who were more traditional Christians and less unfriendly to establishment. Let the students follow these debates and judge for themselves.

Martha Nussbaum