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Martha Nussbaum on Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Book Review)

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) April 27, 2010 In my earlier article published at OpEdNews entitled "Not For Profit, Eh? Hold on There, Martha Nussbaum!" I published my objections about the terrible title NOT FOR PROFIT. Just as there is financial profit, so too there are many other forms of profit, including profiting from the study of the humanities. But enough about that!

Apart from my objections about the title, I consider Nussbaum's new book NOT FOR PROFIT: WHY DEMOCRACY NEEDS THE HUMANITIES important enough to call for a national debate with her about her thesis.

Nussbaum rises to speak in defense of the humanities in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education.

She rises to speak out not just against former President George W. Bush's administration, but also against President Barack Obama's administration. Both administrations have endorsed the federal legislation known as No Child Left Behind, which leaves much to be desired.

She quotes President Obama as saying, "[E]conomic progress and educational achievement have always gone hand in hand in America" (quoted on p. 137). That much sounds promising.

However, when he turns to praising nations of the Far East for their recent economic advances, he says, "They are spending less time teaching things that don't matter, and teaching things that do. They are preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career. We are not" (quoted on p. 138). This sounds ominous.

Nussbaum fears that "things that don't matter" to President Obama are the humanities (a.k.a. liberal education).

To counter Obama's emphasis on career education, Nussbaum argues that one goal of formal education in the United States and in other democracies around the world is to prepare students for democratic equality before the law. For this reason, she argues, democracy needs the humanities, because the humanities help students learn critical thinking and learn how to understand others, including others who are quite different.

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For Nussbaum, Socrates is the exemplar of the spirit of critical thinking. As a result, she advocates Socratic pedagogy and the importance of learning how to examine arguments and to argue well.

Because I devoted the better part of my teaching career to teaching students how to write argumentative essays, I agree with her that argumentation is important in a democracy. But it is not easy to teach.

Moreover, I have no problem with her use of Socrates as an exemplar. However, he was found guilty of trumped-up charges and executed under the restored democracy in ancient Athens. But she does not discuss this inconvenient fact. I wish she had. As this tragic example shows, arguing well does not always produce benign results.

Nevertheless, she argues that critical thinking and voicing critical thought can at times lead to benign results, as I am sure it can.

Oftentimes, short-sighted decisions could have been avoided by more rigorous argument about possible alternatives and possible objections. Moreover, it strikes me that this point about rigorous argument would apply not just to legislative decision-making and decision-making in courts of law, but to all forms of decision-making, including business decisions.

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So here's my first question for President Obama: Is the career education that you praise going to teach students how to examine arguments and how to argue well? If it does not, it will not be preparing them for decision making in their careers.

As to the goal of cultivating understanding of others, this is necessary in a democracy so that we learn to curb our tendency to consider others as means, not as ends in themselves to be respected as much as we respect ourselves.

In the course of my teaching career, I taught the novels THINGS FALL APART (1958) and NO LONGER ATE EASE (1960) by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe more often than I taught any other works of literature of comparable length in an effort to help my diverse American students understand very different from American culture and people they knew. As a result of my own teaching efforts, I can endorse Nussbaum's goal for education as helping students to understand people and cultures that are quite different from their own experiences.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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Obama's endorsement of career education is short-s... by Thomas Farrell on Tuesday, May 4, 2010 at 11:03:32 AM