June has been a month of great lamentation over the current lack of appreciation for the humanities. New York Times columnist David Brooks rang the theme in his June 7 column, “History for Dollars” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/08/opinion/08brooks.html and that theme was sounded as well in Martha Nussbaum’s recent Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton: 2010) which I’ve just read.
Studying the humanities—and Brooks and Nussbaum use the term broadly and inclusive of the arts—is essential for human flourishing, Brooks argues. The ability to read and write well remain highly valued both inside and outside the workplace. The humanities equip one to understand and appeal to emotions, a desirable skill in a capitalist society, and provide one with analogy-making information and skill, a tool immensely helpful for those who are trying to write, speak and think clearly and precisely. In short, as numerous pundits and futurists (think Thomas L Friedman in The World is Flat and Daniel H. Pink in A Whole New Mind) have recently argued, a genuine liberal education provides the intellectual breadth and the cognitive and emotive skills critical for prospering in the twenty-first century.
But Brooks recognizes that prospering is not enough; we need more than just a job that pays well and that we find worthwhile. Reflective humans must confront what he calls “The Big Shaggy”: “The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to come by because the behavior emanates from somewhere deep inside The Big Shaggy.” An education in the humanities enables one to engage and befriend The Big Shaggy, to explore the perennial puzzles of human life and action, an engagement without which a life cannot be lived well.
Martha Nussbaum focuses not on how the humanities make us as individuals better off, but on our lives together. We value democracy and democracy depends upon the humanities, she argues, and she is alarmed:
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 democracy alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world 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. (2)
Nussbaum’s Not for Profit covers much of the same ground she covered in her decade old Cultivating Humanity, though here she addresses not just college and university education but elementary, middle and high school education as well. (The book’s acknowledgments also contain one of the most egregious and embarrassing mistakes in recent publishing history, at least by my lights.) What the humanities give us, Nussbaum argues, are critical thinking skills. In the humanities one learns to identify mere assertions parading as arguments and to engage and evaluate real arguments. Critical thinking, of course, is not the sole property of philosophy, but Nussbaum does applaud those institutions that require all students to take two courses in philosophy because of the importance of critical thinking and the special expertise of philosophers in practicing and teaching critical thinking.
Education in the humanities and the arts provides one, as well, with the abilities to think as a “citizen of the world.” When we listen to the daily economic news we are reminded of how our economic wellbeing is tied to the condition of the euro as well as the economies of Asia. The Gulf Oil Spill may affect U.S. citizens most dramatically, but it does not affect only us, and the same is certainly true for CO2 emissions in China. This is not to suggest that we ought not, first, be U.S. citizens; it is to say that a good U.S. citizen is aware of his or her place in the world, of his or her connectedness to the citizens of other nations. And this requires the sort of understanding of others that humanities studies provide. Finally, democracy requires the ability of citizens “to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person,” an imagination proffered by foreign language study, literature, history, and religious studies.
Let us assume that the humanities are in such fine fettle as Brooks and Nussbaum believe, and that an education in the humanities and the arts, wherever one studies, is like that here in the Evans School at Berry College, that is to say, the humanities really aim to do what Brooks and Nussbaum say they do (and let’s assume for the moment that we have some agreed upon way of telling whether or not the humanities and the arts do aim at and achieve these purposes). Is this enough, as Brooks and Nussbaum maintain?
Put differently, Brooks and Nussbaum fault students and their parents and national leaders, including President Obama, for caring too much about jobs, or profit, and “national economic progress.” Other things matter more, and we should care more about these other things. But why think any and all education in the humanities and the arts has the transformative affect upon the cares and loves of students (and their parents) for which Nussbaum calls? Why think such study can deliver one from caring too much about profit and too little about the condition of one’s own soul or the wellbeing of one’s neighbor? Let’s say that Nussbaum is on the money in her concluding diagnosis:
“If the real clash of civilizations is, as I believe, a clash within the individual soul, as greed and narcissism contend against respect and love, all modern societies are rapidly losing the battle, as they feed the forces that lead to violence and dehumanization and fail to feed the forces that lead to cultures of equality and respect. 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. They only do what is much more precious than that, make a world worth living in, people who are able to see other human beings as full people, with thoughts and feelings of their own that deserve respect and empathy, and nations that are able to overcome fear and suspicion in favor of sympathetic and reasoned debate.” (143)
Can an education in the humanities carry this weight? Should the load be placed on the humanities? Why should we think an education in humanities and the arts is both necessary and sufficient, rather than necessary but not sufficient, in the soul correction we require? If the sickness is greed and narcissism, why think an education in the humanities an adequate (and appropriate) cure? And, if a liberal education is not the cure, then what is?
Fevered questions? Perhaps so, but it has been a hot, dry June.