At the risk of perpetuating the curmudgeonly image that several of my earlier reviews may have generated, this week I decided to pick up Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.  The book is a manifesto in defense of the importance of humanistic learning, both for its own sake and for the good of society.

Nussbaum, a philosopher who has taught at Harvard, Brown, and, most recently, the University of Chicago, provocatively begins the book, “We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance” (1).  The crisis of which she speaks concerns not the economy, but rather education.  Every day schools at every level give less and less time and money to the humanities and more and more to practical disciplines.  Whereas once education was geared toward inculcating good citizenship and critical thinking, these days students are often encouraged – by parents, by society in general, by the economic crisis – to see their education primarily as a means to the end of making money.

Not for Profit argues against this trend on a number of levels, both philosophical and practical.  Nussbaum challenges the emphasis on economics as an indicator of a nation’s development with a shrewdly chosen example: the old South Africa under apartheid was always near the top of the development indices based on the amount of wealth the country generated.  And yet few people today would consider the old South Africa a nation worthy of emulation.  Nevertheless, the emphasis on productivity persists, to the detriment of our students’ full development.  Moreover, this emphasis poses an increasing threat to democracy, as the abandonment of things like literature and the arts can lead to a devaluing of the human person.

Following her diagnosis of the problem, Nussbaum offers a prescription for revitalizing education in the interests of preserving the values of democracy.  Education ought to be holistic, dealing not only with the life of the mind but also with the affections.  Students should be taught to have empathy for the outsider, to have genuine compassion for the other, and to think critically.  Nussbaum argues that the most effective method to achieve these goals is Socratic pedagogy.  Students must learn to analyze arguments and think for themselves, rather than simply regurgitate information.  Moreover, given the nature of globalization, they must be taught foreign cultures and the interconnectedness of economies, a foreign language, world religions, and philosophical theories of justice.  Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book advocates for the indispensability of literature and the arts.  Using the Chicago Children’s Choir as an example, Nussbaum relates various anecdotes about how music can break down barriers and generate mutual understanding among people of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.  The imagination, she argues, is no less important a part of education than the other disciplines that receive more interest and funding.

Nussbaum’s final chapter reprises the warning that education is headed in the wrong direction.  Science, technology, and the almighty dollar have become gods (my words, not hers), and everyone seems to pinch a bit of incense at the altar.  Praising the schools of the Far East, President Obama noted in a 2009 speech on education, “They are spending less time teaching things that don’t matter, and more time teaching things that do.  They are preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career.  We are not” (138).  Careerism and productivity, it would seem, are the order of the day.  But do we recognize the cost?

I found much to agree with in Not for Profit.  Nussbaum makes a passionate and in many ways compelling case for the importance of the humanities.  As already noted, the chapter on literature and the arts was intriguing.  At the same time, I’m not persuaded by every element of her argument.  I was a bit put off by her regular denigration of “rote” learning, as well as her near blanket dismissals of tradition and authority.  I don’t at all mean to suggest that memorization is the be-all and end-all of education, nor that it can substitute for critical thinking.  Nevertheless, I do think that one of the more unfortunate trends in education is the demonizing of memorization. The latter is an essential skill, one by which we learn some things for which there is no other appropriate method.  Moreover, much higher order learning depends on the lower level skill of memorization.  Similarly, one cannot critique a tradition or an authoritative statement unless one first understands it.  I’m sure if pressed Nussbaum would acknowledge this, but I wish she had been more careful with her language.

Despite these quibbles, Nussbaum is a learned and passionate advocate for the lasting significance of the humanities, and thus I consider her an ally.  I leave you with the eloquent final sentences of her argument:

“If we do not insist on the crucial importance of the humanities and the arts, they will drop away, because they do not make money.  They only do what is much more precious than that, make a world that is worth living in, people who are able to see other human beings as full people, with thoughts and feelings of their own that deserve respect and empathy, and nations that are able to overcome fear and suspicion in favor of sympathetic and reasoned debate” (143).

Fourteen down, (at least) thirty-eight to go.