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Aug. 19th, 2011

Martha Nussbaum, a professional political philosopher, has an interesting article up at the ABC

Educating for Profit, Educating for Freedom

(That's the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the American company; as best I can tell it's the Aussie equivalent of BBC or PBS.)

Dr. Nussbaum argues that what Americans call liberal-arts education - where all students regardless of major do a certain number of courses across the disciplines - are crucial if you want an educated democratic populace. She does a fabulous job of wading through those points, and she argues basically that a good liberal arts education is the right of every citizen. That's a message I can really get behind.

She also talks about how there is a major difference between educating to maximize profit and educating to, well, educate. As in, helping people become fully-actualized human beings. Again, I quite agree with that - the goals are very different, and steps that will serve one path well won't work so well for the other. I'm not sure how many people (within government or out) expect universities to do the latter. I was a bit of a nerd and looked forward to college for its own sake, but even I knew that others expected it to prepare me for some reasonable career. "Finding myself" was to be done on my own dime.

Still, the first 2/3 or so were really insightful and well done. Toward the end, though, the argument gets a bit screwy. Here she praises how the U.S. handles the humanities because our general education cores + privately-financed universities mean you have a large network of donors who can give mega-bucks to support the humanities. Which the humanities need because, compared to a lot of subjects, they have more cost per pupil since to be effective you need smaller class size. She even says that on this basis the best humanities programs are (and should) be going private.

Why is this necessary? Because, as Dr. Nussbaum puts it,

Can you imagine a politicians campaigning by telling her constituents, "I've laid the groundwork for the long-term health of democratic institutions by my focus on the humanities." It's too intangible, and would not be likely to succeed.


Here's the line of reasoning, as I understand it.

1. Humanities education is necessary to produce good citizens of democracies.

This seems to imply that democracy is a worthwhile form of government, which I'd think would mean it was capable of acting in its own best interest.

2. Some limited level of humanities education is economically necessary. (Encourages innovation, critical thought, etc.) A higher level is justified if we include non-economic needs like the need for understanding other cultures, the need for a life perceived as meaningful, etc.

3. But the democratic system is incapable of perceiving that it has a need for humanities education and providing for it through democratic institutions.

(Seems to me there's a contradiction between [3] and the implication of [1], but moving along...)

4. The solution to this is to appeal to those who have the means to privately support the humanities - the rich.

--- the rich have pleasant nostalgic experiences of studying the humanities, and
--- the rich want to give that same experience to their children, so
--- the rich will support humanities at their alma mater

This strikes me as pretty undemocratic because it's definitely not a one man, one vote situation. It also bothered me that the rich deserve special wooing like weekend retreats to study a humanities text tied with fund raising. But I can't quite work out why in specific terms.

The bigger problem? Private universities are not accessible to the majority of the population. University educations generally are less and less accessible, actually. And schools like mine (a private Jesuit school, so not even that exclusive as far as private colleges go!) is probably out of the reach of large swaths of the community. I know for a fact of several local people working and living in the neighborhood who would love to send a kid to Fordham but can't afford it.

So this means that humanities - a discipline that is by Dr. Nussbaum's claim necessary and valuable to a democracy - will be placed out of the reach of the majority of the polis.

One other reason why private donors are better than political funds is because " although they often do have silly or obnoxious ideas, they can be reasoned with. They are not running for anything, except immortality." That may sometimes be the case but not always; Bloomberg went through several examples where donors are putting conditions on hiring and even course content. "Being reasoned with" probably doesn't mean you show donors the errors of their ways and give up on it entirely; I suspect the university negotiates them down to a "reasonable" accommodation. And given the (admittedly small) experience I've had with university administration, I'd guess "reasonable" depends on how badly you need the money and how outlandish the original request was.

As it stands, it's hard to see how a humanities education is necessary for democracy but democracy is both worth preserving and incapable of supporting the humanities. Maybe it's not a technical contradiction, but these claims certainly seem at odds. And I want to find a way out of this mess, because Dr. Nussbaum is a very well-regarded philosopher, and because so much of what she says elsewhere makes a lot of sense. I can see a few solutions to the situation. Maybe Dr. Nussbaum means that liberal arts education at one level (say, K-12) is necessary for all citizens and college liberal arts education is a nice top-up. Or perhaps she's saying that the education of the few benefits all of society. But the context works against either interpretation - university-level humanities education is presented as important for all citizens.

I'm not saying unis shouldn't take private monies. Or that they don't need to woo donors. I'm a realist, I get it, and I obviously want that funding there for when I get on the job market. But to praise the American system precisely because it's so exclusive and supports the super-rich over, say, used cars salesmen and medical billing technicians, at the same time as you say humanities education is so crucial to a one-man-one-vote style of government - seems like there's something weird going on toward the end of this piece.

All of that said, I do still recommend it. Most of it was a really good explanation of why the humanities (and philosophy in particular) matter.

This entry was originally posted at http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/4041.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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