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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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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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