Nussbaum on the Future of Education and Democracy

Poor education, poor democracy
Martha C. Nussbaum
The Washington Post - Political Bookworm Blog
August 13, 2010

Where is education headed in our country? This is no trivial question. Democracy stands or falls with its people and their habits of mind, and education produces those habits of mind. Nonetheless, we are seeing radical changes in both pedagogy and curricular content, and these changes have not been well thought through. Eager for economic growth, our nation, like many others, has begun to think of education in narrowly instrumental terms, as a set of useful skills that can generate short-term profit for industry. What is getting lost in the competitive flurry is the future of democracy.

As Socrates knew long ago, any democracy is a “noble but sluggish horse.” It needs lively watchful thought to keep it awake. This means that citizens need to cultivate the skill for which Socrates lost his life: the ability to criticize tradition and authority, to keep examining self and other, to accept no speech or proposal until one has tested it with one’s very own reasoning. By now psychological research confirms Socrates’ diagnosis: people have an alarming capacity to defer to authority and to peer pressure. Democracy can’t survive if we don’t limit these baneful tendencies, cultivating habits of inquisitive and critical thought.

Martha Nussbaum