Having developed and taught undergraduate university courses in the humanities, it was with great interest that I picked up Martha Nussbaum’s most recent book: Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. I share her concern that curriculum seems dangerously guided primarily by the ‘needs’ of the current growth-oriented economic system, rather than by interest in cultivating critically-minded, imaginative, and engaged citizens. She expresses concern over such things as increased class sizes, standardized testing, and requirements that research proposals demonstrate evidence of economic ‘impact’.
Education for Democracy
Nussbaum’s premise is that, worldwide, education in the arts and humanities is in a precarious state, and as a result, so is democracy as we know it. She says, “Distracted by the pursuit of wealth, we increasingly ask our schools to turn out useful profit-makers rather than thoughtful citizens. Under pressure to cut costs, we prune away just those parts of the educational endeavor that are crucial to preserving a healthy society” (p. 141-142).
She goes much farther than suggesting the arts and humanities get neglected in today’s growth-driven economic and political landscape; Nussbaum is convinced that these disciplines are, in fact, feared. The content and pedagogy of the humanities emphasize such abilities as: critical thinking, compassion, imagination, sympathy, and creativity. By contrasting ‘education for democracy’ with ‘education for economic growth’, she highlights the very different priorities, skills, and mindsets required for each, suggesting that “freedom of mind is dangerous if what is wanted is a group of technically trained obedient workers to carry out the plans of elites who are aiming at foreign investment and technological development” (p. 21).
Democracy vs. Economic Growth
By so doing, she effectively makes the case that democracy and economic growth are, in many ways, incompatible. “Democracy is built on respect for each person, and the growth model respects only an aggregate” (p. 24). She describes in great detail how “inequality can reach astonishing proportions, as it did in yesterday’s South Africa, while a nation grows very nicely” (p. 22), and asserts that GDP alone is a misleading measure of prosperity since it conveniently overlooks distribution.
Unfortunately, this is where her argument begins to falter. Perhaps in an effort not to polarize her audience, or perhaps in a last ditch attempt to convey the universal importance of the humanities and the arts, she then proceeds to argue that these fields of study must be preserved because the skills of imagination, creativity, and critical thinking are also crucial for economic growth and national prosperity.
Inconsistent with her original premise, Nussbaum insists that the humanities “are essential for the goal of economic growth and the maintenance of a healthy business culture” (p. 112). Whereas previously she claimed that “empirical studies have … shown that political liberty, health, and education are all poorly correlated with growth” (p. 14), she now urges readers to recognize the value of the humanities in cultivating “minds that are flexible, open, and creative” for innovation in business (p. 112).
In contradiction with her assertion that growth is incompatible with equity, Nussbaum seems to go out of her way not to dismiss the growth model economy. She explains early in her book that “the national interest of any modern democracy requires a strong economy and a flourishing business culture” and that as she develops her primary argument, she will also argue, “secondarily, that the economic interest, too, requires us to draw on the humanities and arts” (p. 10). Despite her valuable critique of growth, she assures readers that they “are not forced to choose between a form of education that promotes profit and a form of education that promotes good citizenship [because] a flourishing economy requires the same skills that support citizenship” (p. 10).
This may be true: economic growth and democracy may both require creativity, free thinking, and critical engagement. But this does not mean they can comfortably sit side by side. ‘Innovation’ in the pursuit of economic growth is what has led to some of the most shocking global atrocities she outlines in her book. A growth model economy requires setting aside some of the other qualities Nussbaum claims are cultivated through literature, philosophy, and the arts – qualities such as “the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person” (p. 7). So, while education in the humanities may prepare students for either democracy or growth, this book does not convincingly convey how it can prepare them for both.
Although experienced and well-versed in the Socratic method, I fear Nussbaum has set up a flawed argument here in which she begins to argue against herself. What this leaves me with, as a reader, is the sense of a missed opportunity.
Post Growth Educational and Economic Opportunities
She could have pursued her ‘education for democracy’ line of thinking (as her title implies she would) and entertained economic possibilities that are compatible with democracy: models that consider inequities of distribution, possibilities that see human beings as more than means to economic ends, approaches that consider environmental and human costs, and measures that take into consideration well-being and sustainability over the long term. Instead, she stays firmly planted in the current growth-oriented system (despite her own arguments that they serve only the elite), and spends the bulk of her time arguing that lessons learned from the humanities can allow us to continue moving in our current direction, albeit more thoughtfully.
Written as a manifesto, her pleading with the reader to understand the vital importance of the humanities becomes less and less convincing throughout the book. Drawing greatly from Euro-centric theories of child development, and asserting ‘truths’ about human nature, she overlooks the power dynamics that have brought us to the current state of affairs in education, choosing instead to present an alternative that she favors (which she outlines in great detail, drawing from a variety of examples worldwide). Thus, rather than engaging with how alternatives to the present education system might be pursued, she simply argues that they should, while offering little in the way of routes towards them.
Indeed, by refusing to contest the current growth model economy, it seems to me she overlooks what is arguably the most powerful possibility of enabling the important educational reforms she is advocating.
By Nussbaum’s own admission, the education system is greatly influenced by the political context in which it exists. Today, for example, “the pressure for economic growth has led many political leaders in Europe to recast the entirety of university education … along growth oriented lines” (p. 127). Thus, without directly challenging growth as the underlying logic for all our pursuits – educational and otherwise – we cannot hope to enact the crucial changes she is advocating. Doing so requires drastic systemic changes, which, sadly, are not entertained in this book.