CHICAGO -- It's a familiar question: Do the liberal arts need saving? The answer here Thursday at a conference on the topic -- yes -- was familiar, too. But keynote speakers at the opening of the conference at the University of Chicago focused less on the question itself than on from what and whom a broad education needs rescuing.
Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at Chicago, also described challenges to quantifying the value of the liberal arts. It’s good news, she said, that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and other bodies have begun collecting better data on who’s studying the humanities -- and the finding that community colleges awarded some 40 percent of their degrees to humanities students in 2014 is especially heartening.
It “would be all too easy for such community college programs to slide toward narrow vocational education, thus creating a class-based two-tier system, where liberal education is increasingly an opportunity for elites,” she said. “This has not happened, and it’s very important to prevent it from happening.”
Yet available data focus primarily students who major in the humanities, Nussbaum said, missing the real point.
“We should not measure the impact of the humanities simply by counting numbers of majors,” she said. “The whole design of the liberal arts system is that courses in the humanities are required of all students, no matter what their major. … Students can major in computer science or engineering, but in such a system they are also required to take general liberal arts courses in history, philosophy and literature. This system has striking advantages, preparing students for their multiple future roles in much more adequate way than a narrow single-subject system.”
Nussbaum adapted her remarks from the introduction to the second edition of her book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton University Press). It’s seen a surprising amount of interest abroad, she said, including in countries with no liberal arts tradition and in which students are single-tracked into studying only their major. So opportunities to simply study the liberal arts -- not necessarily major in them -- are important, too, she said.
For Nussbaum, there are three main arguments for a liberal education: its ability to shape citizenry in a democracy -- ever more important in an increasingly global society -- along with its ability to foster innovation in business and help us understand our lives.
To the last point, she said, “We all seek a deeper understanding of love, death, anger, pain and many other themes treated in great works of art, literature and philosophy. No matter how we earn our living, we all need to confront ourselves, our own life and death.” While it’s easy to forget about these deeper themes when one is young, she added, “it’s then that an initial acquaintance plants seeds for fruitful later rumination.” It’s no surprise that one major growth area for the humanities is in continuing education for adults, for example, she said.
Conversations about the liberal arts sometimes center on “unprecedented” threats, and indeed there have been a host of attacks on these disciplines from politicians in particular in recent years. While both Brewer and Nussbaum expressed concerns about negative influence on the humanities and other fields from skeptical lawmakers and metrics-driven administrators, they avoided claims of urgency. Instead, both scholars said the humanities have always been under threat because they are by nature threatening to institutions. What’s important is recognizing current threats, or at least their "contours," as Brewer put it, so they may be combated effectively.
“Socratic questioning is unsettling, and people in power often prefer docile followers to independent citizens able to think for themselves,” Nussbaum said. “Furthermore, a lively imagination, alert to the situations, desires and sufferings of others, is a taxing achievement; moral obtuseness is so much easier. So we should not be surprised that the humanities are under assault, now as ever. The battle for responsible democracy and alert citizenship is always difficult and uncertain. But it is both urgent and winnable, and the humanities are a large part of winning it.”
Read more at Inside Higher Ed