Martha Nussbaum: "The Liberal Arts Are Not Elitist"

The Liberal Arts Are Not Elitist
Martha C. Nussbaum
The Chronicle of Higher Education
February 28, 2010

We are in the midst of a crisis of huge proportions and grave global significance. No, I do not mean the global economic crisis that began in 2008. At least then everyone knew that the crisis was at hand, and many world leaders worked to find solutions. No, I mean a crisis that goes largely unnoticed; a crisis that is likely to be, in the long run, far more damaging to the future of democratic self-government: a worldwide crisis in education.

Radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Thirsty for national profit, nations and their systems of education are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, all over the world we will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person's sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.

What are these radical changes? The liberal arts are being cut away in both elementary and secondary education and in universities. Indeed, what we might call the humanistic aspects of science and social science—the imaginative, creative aspect, and the aspect of rigorous critical thought—are also losing ground.

Martha Nussbaum


The Empirical Evidence Doesn't Support Nussbaum's View

Would you consider Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Sergey Brin to be people who lack respect for democracy and humanity?  Obviously this is a rhetorical question, we know quite to the contrary, that these people are/were advocates democracy and human rights.  I find the personalities of celebrities like this to be a microcosm of the numerous personalities with which I interact in tech/finance/industial organizations whom likewise have no real depth of formal education in "liberal arts" and yet manage to be high quality global citizens who find themselves to be living meaningful, enjoyable lives.  How could this be when these people have such little formal education in liberal arts?  I believe that their formative formal and informal educational experiences have "ignited a flame of interest" in key liberal arts topics that have led to an informal but highly valuable life-long, self-driven education on these topics.

I think it is important to acknowledge that the knowledge of mankind has vastly expanded since the days of ancient Greco-Roman civilizations.  Back then, perhaps it was feasible for someone like Aristotle to sit down and explain everything mankind knows to a young Alexander.  However, in today's world, even if we commit to life-long learning, as mankind accumulates vaster and vaster knowledge we must be choosier and choosier with what we learn in our earliest years.  Today, I believe prioritizing the formal education of many "liberal arts" such as history, philosophy, and literature/arts at the expense of learning the skills most urgently needed to succeed in 21st century businesses is resulting in unemployment/underemployment that is financial disrupting people's ability to live meaningful, enjoyable, and intellectual lives.  Simultaneously, it must also be said (and I think that the empirical evidence is obvious) that "liberal arts" such as critical thinking and communication skills are certainly in serious demand by today's leading organizations (be they for-profit or not-for-profit).  So I find that lamenting about the decline of  "liberal arts" as a whole is inaccurate -- it is only a certain subset of liberal arts that is being de-prioritized and we need to be specific in this discussion.

Lastly, using terminology like "useful machines" is creating a false dichotomy.  We can have (and I attest already do have) programmers/accountants/engineers who watch documentaries on history/philosophy/religion/art over dinner, craft music, art and videos on their weekends, and spend their vacations learning about different cultures -- our lives are not characterized by a monotonous pursuit -- as long as "the flame of interest has been ignited" many liberal arts subjects can have a meaingful role in the lives of life-long learners who have first prioritized learning the skills that are most directly applicable at highly-demanded, entry-level career positions.  I find this is quite preferable to a society that loves driving Toyota Priuses, doing Google queries on Foxconn-manufactured tablets after returning from a taxpayer-financed medical check-ups, but can't be bothered spending any significant portion of its time learning how to make/perform any of the products/services it consumes.


As a final note, I find it somewhat ironic that Nussbaum's title states that the liberal arts are "Not Elitist" when access to the article is only provided to the sorts of academic elites that have paid subscribtions to "The Chronicle".  I think it is quite telling that only a very narrow group of elites is even able to hear (or perhaps even interested) in her argument that liberal arts is not elitist.

Liberal arts yet again

Well, forgive me, but it seems I've heard this song before --- not that it's still not worth singing.  My take is as follows: decades of experience in higher education have convinced me that those most committed to the liberal arts, especially those dedicated to teaching introductory humanities and other courses in general education, are the least respected professionally.  Those particularly invested in teaching careful reading and the ability to understand and construct arguments, are usually un -or underemployed as contingency workers.  Scholars like the late Wayne Booth of the University of Chicago are all too rare these days when fashionably clotted prose addressed to increasingly narrower audiences is what is overvalued in higher education, especially in the humanities.  A humane and humanistic rhetoric as a democratic capacity seems beyond our efforts despite the eloquent pleas of people like Danielle Allen (see TALKING TO STRANGERS) who understand that developing rhetoricians (not admen) is crucial to the life of democracy.

I would recommend two other pieces to converse with on this topic.  First, Mark Slouka's recent essay in Harper's lamenting the dehumanizing of education, and Michael Roth's "Beyond Critical Thinking" in the Jan 2 CHRONICLE OF HE REVIEW.  That such voices still exist gives one some hope.

George T. Karnezis MA '66