A while ago I read a book called “Notfor Profit: Why Democracy Needs theHumanities” by Martha Nussbaum. In it, she argues that humanistic education is key to a healthy democracy, and that both humanistic education and the democracy it underlies are in peril in the 21st century.
Nussbaum focuses on three key elements of a humanistic education, which will ideally lead to empathy in students: critical thought (fostered through the Socratic method of open-ended questioning and searching); creation of world citizens through exposure to viewpoints, cultural production, and in-person human contact with peoples different from our own; and finally, the arts as an avenue for exploration and communication of our humanity. She frames these all as basic skills necessary for the practice of democracy, which I agree with, but I also see the lessons of the humanities as crucial for leading a decent, satisfying life.
On the note of empathy, one of Nussbaum’s most interesting themes for me was the idea of disgust as the ultimate root of injustice. She argues that, from an early age, children in all societies are taught first a natural disgust for things that can actually be harmful—human feces, poisonous animals, rotten food. But in many societies, this disgust is also coopted and placed onto certain groups of human beings—blacks, untouchables, women, infidels, gays, the poor, etc. Children are taught early on and insistently to divert disgust to other people, and this serves as the foundation of much of the structural, systematic hatred and oppression we see across the world. I agree with this assessment, because I have seen firsthand how parents teach their kids fear and disgust of the natural world and of natural bodily processes, and I have seen instances where this learned reaction is immediately, before my very eyes, translated by the child into pointing fingers and “othering” another kid. Nussbaum associates this disgust-driven oppression with a feeling of helplessness, both among children and adults; if I feel insecure about myself, I am more likely to step on others to salve my own insecurities. Interestingly, one of the educational strategies she outlines to get away from these feelings of helplessness is to teach children practical skills like cooking and fixing things. I have not often heard such “vocational” education categorized under the umbrella of liberal arts, but Nussbaum’s inclusion of it goes with my own personal conviction (shared I think by my father) that general manual/practical skills and the humanities are equal parts of a sound education. Both my father and I love to develop our intellects, but we also both chose to go to vocational high schools in order to cultivate more than just the intellectual mind.
A humanistic education fights against the impulse to disgust in a number of ways, per Nussbaum. Learning to see the world critically and with an open mind simply doesn’t allow for received dogmas or irrational, unquestioned gut reactions to things. Learning about the life experience and the ideas of people and cultures different from you forces you to question your own suppositions, even as you see certain incoherencies in the way those other cultures and people see the world. And finally, the arts humanize and unite both artist and observer, drawing them away from the dynamic of separation and disgust. Also, the arts cultivate the imagination, which allows us to envision realities and possibilities far beyond our own limited experience.
I believe that Nussbaum’s keys to democracy are also the way to live a good life—empathy for others, awareness of your place in a larger society, constant critical analysis, awareness of and appreciation for the diversity of humanity, a healthy imagination, and an exploration through the arts of what it means to be human. A humanistic thinker, someone with a firm grounding in the areas that Nussbaum favors, is constantly questioning and learning. If you live this way, you will not do things perfectly every time, but when you do do something incorrectly (whether morally or simply in practical terms), you will be able to step back and change course. This contrasts with a highly specialized education, which prepares you to do one thing only, but to do it efficiently and perfectly almost every time.
I’ve heard about people who train to be in the circus from the time they’re little kids. They deliver breathtaking performances, but they don’t learn to do much else, to be flexible and changing, to be responsive to the larger world around them. This is an extreme case, but it applies to some degree to any technical formation, like an expertise in computer or auto repair, an engineering or medical degree, or my degree in agronomy. Next to these high-tech, complicated, specialized fields, a humanistic education doesn’t seem that special—what could be more basic than just learning to think, judge, and change based on the available evidence and your own imagination? But though we are all called to live in this more human way, it seems really rare to meet people who actually do. It is special to find such a critical, compassionate, aware person, much more special than meeting one who is able to execute a perfect trapeze handoff or a delicate brain surgery. I feel that most of us are relatively set in our ways. I read a quote from Kissinger once to the effect that elected officials cease to develop intellectually once they enter office, because they are removed from the new experiences afforded by regular life, as well as being bombarded by criticism to which they respond with an instinctive defensiveness of what they already believe. I think this applies not just to people in high public office, but to a lesser degree it applies to all of us.
That said, I am sometimes surprised by people who seem otherwise unremarkable, but who are indeed constantly, gradually changing how they see the world. In almost everyone I know, even people I regard as very uncritical and complacent, I’ve seen or learned of moments in their adult lives when they make a major change in how they see the world or function within it. So I guess on balance, I don’t know whether to think that we’re all hopelessly stuck in our respective ruts, or if we are all in fact flexible, thinking actors in our world.
Nussbaum’s book brought up again for me the juxtaposition of progressive private schools and homeschooling versus participating in the non-progressive public school system. She cites a number of successful pedagogical experiments that took place through private schools with visionary leaders. But the most progressive, enlightened school in the world, if it’s inherently separate from the schooling most people receive, sort of goes against the principles of solidarity, empathy, and public good that Nussbaum seems to advocate. Remember, her argument is that a humanistic education is key to a democratic society. But a democratic society can by definition not flourish if only an elite few have the tools and the formation to live in a civilized, just way. Where is the space for belonging to and service to the larger community, if your school sets you apart from thecommunity, and even preaches that the rest of the community is gravely mistaken in their approach to teaching and life in general? Perhaps the experience of Finland, of striving for equity in its public school system, can serve as a blueprint for achieving positive, progressive teaching without limiting it to a few exclusive enclaves.
Much of what Nussbaum promotes aligns nicely with the liberal paradigm—mutual respect, individual liberty, shared basic values underlying a larger diversity of approaches and lifestyles. But her exploration of the humanistic roots of democracy also hints at a fundamental tension within liberalism. If you respect others, truly respect and allow for each group’s customs, then you will find that even some of the shared basic values you thought were universal, are in fact not shared. At that point the liberal paradigm becomes a bit imposing or even dictatorial, because it attempts to aggressively ignore, suppress, or convert values that run counter to it. Likewise, the very idea of respecting and celebrating group identity often goes against a pure liberal conception of the individual as the basic unit of existence and meaning. Nussbaum doesn’t really get into any of these issues, and because what she is advocating for is a more humanistic perspective, which I believe is ultimately broader, and more flexible and forgiving, than a strict liberal ideology, her position seems more attractive and coherent to me. Nussbaum’s humanism also recognizes and allows for the non-rational side of humanity, in a way that the cold, strict Enlightment-era liberal dogmas do not.
I wish to explore this tension between community, culture, and tradition on the one hand, and individual liberty and modern political paradigms on the other hand. But this post is not the place for it; I hope to do so soon in an analysis of two other books I read recently about community-centered development processes.