Thursday, May 20, 2010 • 12:00 AM Comments ()

Liberal Arts Call to Arms: Expand the Mind!

posted by Bill Marx

In the previous blog entry, Professor Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello wondered why, given the lessons learned about the connections between funding artists and economic growth during The Great Depression, the current administration’s response to The Great Recession has been to give the humanities and arts short financial shrift. “The stimulus money and revamped budgets have trended towards all things pecuniary and away from things aesthetic,” she observes, “as though the two were mutually exclusive.” Look no further for an explanation of the pernicious divide – and how it undercuts belief in the essential value of a liberal arts education – than Martha C. Nussbaum’s lucid cry of protest Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton University Press, 178 pages, $22.95).

When the economic going gets tough, Nussbaum argues with vim and vigor, educational establishments around the globe often go soft, ditching or ignoring traditional commitments to the humanities and the arts, cutting courses that teach critical thinking, imaginative engagement, and multicultural literacy. Instead, increasingly corporate-minded institutions embrace a marketing creed that herds students into areas of study (sciences, technology, engineering) that promise jobs but encourage intellectual passivity.

Perhaps because she is a professional philosopher, Nussbaum (The Fragility of Goodness, Hiding from Humanity) does not make her main case on the materialist playing field. She doesn’t try to argue, along the lines of Richard Florida and other leisure time gurus, that the humanities and the arts should be treasured because they generate good jobs and strong economic activity. That approach leaves advocates vulnerable to being hoist on their own unforgiving measuring rods (the “creative economy” depends on the health of manufacturing and other fields of employment), forcing them to dumb down their vision of the arts and the humanities to fit catagories of the quantifiable, profit-generating, and politically sanitized. When profit is at stake, what price survival?

For Nussbaum, the economic argument leads to extinction: “if we do not insist on the crucial importance of the humanities and the arts, they will drop away, because they do not make money.” So what is this “crucial importance”? Nothing less than the fate of modern democracy, given that it depends on the creation of informed, reflective, and independent minded citizens who are aware of the interconnected and complex world around them. The humanities and the arts are necessary because they inculcate a Socratic ideal, which leads to a lifetime of self-cultivation. The challenging content and pedagogy of the Socratic method stimulates “students to think and argue for themselves, rather then defer to tradition and authority.”

Nussbaum goes on to laud the humanities and the arts because they encourage an awareness of global interdependency, instilling “in students the ability to see themselves as members of a heterogeneous nation (for all modern nations are heterogeneous), and a still more heterogeneous world, and to understand something of the history and characters of the diverse groups that inhabit it.” A liberal arts education strengthens democratic culture because it broadens our knowledge of different cultures and people. The argument sounds boilerplate, but, as Nussbaum shows in her book, it is a radical perspective for some of those in power in the academy today. There’s not much immediate financial payback in expanding sensibilities.

For the record, Not For Profit notes that the pecuniary and aesthetic are not exclusive--business leaders testify that they want inventive workers rather than passive drones-- but the book’s bedrock assertion is that the humanities and arts are indispensable for the survival of democracy, which depends on educated voters who have been exposed to methods of analysis as well as exhibit a curiosity about others that is the basis for acting responsibly in the world.

Thus Nussbaum champions the arts and the humanities not only for their heuristic value but their moral efficacy: critical reasoning and respect for other cultures are needed to resist tidal waves of greed and narcissism. For her, when America and other countries remove the humanities and the arts from their schools it changes the world we live in for the worse, reinforcing a conformity that only encourages the forces of irrationality and tyranny. Beneath Nussbaum’s calm logical exposition lies a grim “battle of civilization” scenario.

Still, Nussbaum calls Not For Profit a manifesto, but it kowtows to tradition in ways that invite further discussion, even if you generally agree with her basic premises. The focus on the ethical values of the humanities and the arts raises the question of just how anarchistic pleasure fits into education. Should students only be exposed to art works or readings that inculcate good citizenship? (Nussbaum seems to suggest that.) The pleasures of the humanities and the arts come from their freedom to question authority and satirize didacticism, including Nussbaum’s list of Socratic benefits. Are the writings of Ayn Rand, whose creed of uber-selfishness runs counter to everything Nussbaum believes in, to be kept under Platonic lock and key?

The teachers who helped shape Nussbaum’s ideal vision of liberal arts education, John Dewey and Rabindranath Tagore among them, feel a bit intellectually musty. Surely the fine arts aren’t the only way students can learn to think critically and empathize with others – why not Socratic debates about the nature of video games or Reality TV? She admits that classroom exposure to the arts and the humanities does not guarantee better people; it will only help students think more clearly, empathically, and critically. Mao read widely in his extensive library of classical texts, books that he denied to the rest of his country. Finally, Nussbaum suggests that helping the liberal arts weather the storm of philistinism is more a matter of committed people power than increased funding. Yet many of her suggestions, such as more required courses in philosophy and the arts, will take more than good will to make a reality.

Evolutionary theory provides less moralistic descriptions of the survival value of a liberal arts education. “We have long felt,” writes Brian Boyd in On the Origin of Stories, “that art matters to us. It does, objectively as well as subjectively. By focusing our attention away from the given world to a world of shared, humanly created possibility, art makes all the difference.” The Darwinian links between the humanities and possibility resonates with Henry James’ American notion of the “education of our imaginative life” being fueled by an active consciousness “reaching out for the reasons of its interest, as only by so ascertaining them can the interest grow more various.” Perhaps democracy depends on an education that expands rather than contracts the minds of its citizens.

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