Reviewed by Rich Daniels
This slender volume – written for a non-specialist, privileged audience – is American philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s contribution to the debate over the place of the humanities in educational systems throughout the world in this time of a neoliberal, globalized economy, with its constant efforts to privatize and commodify, all formerly public systems. By “humanities” she means the active practice of philosophy, literature, and the arts in the curricula of schools everywhere. Her argument is technically progressive, in the American sense, rooted in her version of the thought and practice of John Dewey and Rabindranath Tagore, among others. It takes a certain view of Socrates as its critical model and, like the rest of her work, it is consonant with establishment left-liberalism and her (and Amartya Sen’s) capabilities approach, which emphasizes individuals at the expense of class.
Nussbaum wants to argue that “democracy” (acceptance and practice of parliamentary or representative systems like those in the West) is at stake globally, and that the humanities play an essential role in the preservation of democratic practices in a global market economy – indeed, she regards the two as intertwined or co-dependent. This is a very American book which fits quite nicely into the same U.S. liberal mold as, say, President Obama’s foreign policy, the promotion of American-style (or “Western”) democracy and democratic values in the Middle East enforced by NATO, as well as in other areas of what were formerly called the second and third worlds. Reliance on her version of a revised and well-scrubbed U.S. model becomes clear in chapter two (“Education for Profit, Education for Democracy”), and continuously thereafter.
Not for Profit consists of seven chapters, each devoted to a stage of Nussbaum’s argument. There is, she claims, a “Silent Crisis” worldwide as nations cut the humanities from (or fail to add them to) their educational programs and thus also cut the skills needed for democracy, mainly “critical thought [philosophy], daring imagination [the arts], empathetic understanding of human experiences … and … of the complexity of the world we live in [literature]” (2, 6). She wants to be seen to argue for equal access for all to both pre-college and university education, but as the book goes on, its partialities become more and more clear, especially but not only those of class. It’s telling that she makes no mention of the work of Jonathan Kozol – especially his 1991 book Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools or his timely 2005 book The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America – or the recent writings, speeches, and interviews of education scholar Diane Ravitch. She has perhaps as much distaste for their kind of activism as she has scorn for the activism and writing of Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, and what she calls the “solidarity left” in general (that is, for the left tout court).
Her second chapter argues that learning for profit should be accompanied by education for democracy. She sees education as included in the neoliberal business culture, which she never seriously questions, just as she never questions the rectitude (one might say) of the nation-state as a political form –in fact she identifies the collective with the nation (22). Nussbaum’s own model is what she calls the “Human Development paradigm,” which, she says “is committed to democracy” (24). Such a “model is not pie-in-the-sky idealism” (the book lacks even a shadow of utopian hope) and is firmly rooted in the ethos of the World Bank and Not-for-Profit ideological culture. It is clearly amenable to use by the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, for example, a high-toned, self-righteous way of interfering in other peoples’ lives while serving the interests of U.S. economic imperialism.
She sees personality disorders and shortcomings as responsible for social problems: “this story of narcissism, helplessness, shame, disgust, and compassion lies … at the heart of what education for democratic citizenship must address” (40) – and, she adds, in a fairly stunning understatement, “people behave badly when nobody raises a critical voice” (43). There is almost no sense in this book of the huge, determining role that economic and other class inequalities and privileges play in education (Kozol’s “savage inequalities”) or of the need for transformative social change to address these effectively. But then, evasion of the fundamental economic issue is basically what makes her argument a liberal one.
At one point Nussbaum writes of “our central topic, political culture” and then just a page later of “our topic, formal education” (53, 54). The nearly unconscious ambiguity of purpose – is it political culture, or formal education? – is telling in its avoidance of economic inequality and differences of class, which are clearly too “pie-in-the-sky” idealistic to be reasonably addressed in the course of a solidly liberal ( “Socratic”) argument. Like a good contemporary pragmatist, or a good Aspen Institute participant, she will only consider the limited good that can be done for a relative few in the world taken exactly as it is, eschewing any critique that steps beyond that boundary. The very categories of her chapter headings – “Citizens,” “Socratic Pedagogy,” “Citizens of the World,” and then the restriction of “Literature and the Arts” to “Cultivating Imagination” reveal the bourgeois nature of her argument, rooted in capabilities approach. John Dewey (not to mention Rousseau) deserves better than that, and so do most of the people of the world. Her notion of ‘world citizen” implies acceptance of business culture, nation states, capitalist economy with its class differences, Western (mainly U.S.) dominance – all as ordinary aspects of a fundamentally unchanging existent reality. The arts and critical thinking, she writes, “are essential for the goal of economic growth and the maintenance of a healthy business culture” (112). There is no sense of the possibility of a better world for all or of the social need for achievement of something like what Theodor Adorno, in the course of an eloquent passage of his 1964-5 lectures on History and Freedom, refers to as a “real, not merely formal, global social subject” (143-4). There is in Nussbaum’s book no sense of anything like Adorno’s assessment that (in the words of translator Rodney Livingston) if “philosophy is still possible today … it can only be one that retains in every one of its statements the memory of the sufferings of human beings in the death camps. It will be a philosophy that recalls not the shadow of the tall plane trees on the banks of the Llissos, like Plato’s Phaedrus, but the ‘shadow / of the scar up in the air’, of which Paul Celan speaks” (History and Freedom, xv). There have of course been many permutations of the “death camps” (in the Congo today, for one) since Adorno formulated his negative idea of education after Auschwitz.
Nussbaum’s seventh and final chapter, “Democratic Education on the Ropes,” reveals a startlingly smug satisfaction with the American experience, as she knows it from the elite, restrictive perspective of Harvard and the University of Chicago. She writes that although it is not her topic, “we in the United States should pause at this point to be thankful for our traditions, which combine a liberal arts model with a strong cultivation of humanistic philanthropy and a basically private-endowment structure of funding. (Even the stronger U.S. state systems, such as the University of Michigan and the University of California, are increasingly relying on private endowment money.) We did not deliberate and wisely choose this system, but we can be happy that it has evolved and that we can all rely on it” (132). One can only pause in astonishment over such self-congratulation and that unthinking use of the word “all.” She has to have in mind for her auditors Bill Gates and Larry Summers, perhaps, and their admirers and imitators, among them as leaders without doubt the rest of America’s best and brightest. Such folk, she asserts, “love the life of the mind, and they want others to enjoy it” (132). How nice of them.
The education for democracy that the whole world needs, Nussbaum writes, must cultivate “an active, critical, reflective, and empathetic member of a community of equals, capable of exchanging ideas on the basis of respect and understanding with people from many different backgrounds” (141)– which is putting the cart before the horse. How, we must ask – for Martha Nussbaum’s idealist argument does not – do we achieve that “community of equals” to begin with, internationally – a community of economic equals, which Nussbaum excludes from the start from consideration? For only in such an inclusive and international or global collective could the other concerns raised in this book have any moral or human import.
5 June 2011