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Life Arts    H4'ed 4/3/10

Not For Profit, Eh? Hold on There, Martha Nussbaum!

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) April 2, 2010 The estimable Martha Nussbaum's forthcoming new book is titled NOT FOR PROFIT: WHY DEMOCRACY NEEDS THE HUMANITIES. Of course we are familiar with non-profit organizations (a.k.a. non-profits), so we should understand that not all worthwhile human activities have to be for monetary profit. As a result, we can speak of non-monetary profit or value. But "non-monetary profit" is a very cumbersome expression, so I'd prefer not to use it.

So I want to raise the following questions: How does one profit from studying the humanities (where the term "profit" refers to non-monetary profit)? What is the payoff and thus the profit of studying the humanities, if any?

Of course for a small percentage of people such as Nussbaum herself studying the humanities can lead to a career in teaching the humanities. So humanities teachers profit from the study of the humanities by the salaries they receive. But what about all the other people who might study the humanities in a series of core courses, but who do not go on to become humanities teachers?

At times in the United States, people thought that they should pursue a liberal arts education (which I use here as a rough equivalent for the humanities) so that they could develop a philosophy of life, whatever that is. Whatever this expression may have encompassed in their imaginations, it frequently did move them to take some philosophy courses, which are the core courses in the liberal arts and humanities. In my case I took six philosophy courses as the core courses in my undergraduate liberal arts education, in which I majored in English. By developing a philosophy of life, the college graduates would then be equipped for life, even if they happened to modify their acquired philosophy of life over the course of their lives. But today very few students enter college with the goal in mind of developing a philosophy of life. For them, a philosophy of life is evidently not a prerequisite for setting forth on their future adult lives.

But this brings us to Socrates' claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. By his standard, billions of people in the world in the past and in the present have lived lives that are not worth living. By his standard, the examined life is the only kind of life worth living.

Given his standard, Socrates could readily claim, "What would it profit someone to gain all the material wealth in the world if in the process of doing so he or she loses his or her soul?" In short, the purpose of the examined life is to find one's soul, not to lose it. This is the profit of the examined life. In other words, the examined life is for profit, the profit being to find one's soul, not to lose it.

Put differently, the unexamined life leads one to lose one's soul and not find it even if one gains all the wealth in the world.

Thus liberal arts education, or humanities education, is for profit. Its benefit is to learn how to live an examined life, instead of living an unexamined life.

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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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