What is the good of a university education?

Martha Nussbaum is one of the most exceptional voices in philosophy and public policy we have today, and she has contributed to a wide range of topics.  Her work on the ethics of development has proven to be a very important contribution (for example, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach), through which she has significantly deepened the theory of capabilities as a touchstone for measuring successful economic development.

One of Nussbaum’s talents is to bring important issues of value and morality into engagement with the real world — women in development, the role of ethical thinking in great fiction, and the ways in which the world’s religions intersect with important value questions we face today. She rightly sees that purely philosophical reflection on these important issues will not take us as far as an approach that brings together analytic thinking with real historical and sociological inquiry.

Nussbaum’s thinking about liberal education is especially important today. Her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education provided a fresh and vigorous defense of the value of liberal education when it appeared in 1997, and it has gone on to wield influence on faculty and administrators as they engaged in curriculum reform in subsequent fifteen years. The appearance of Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities is a welcome addition to this line of thought.  Her point of view is an urgent one: our collective philosophy of education has gone off the rails.

How is education for democratic citizenship doing in the world today? Very poorly, I fear. This is a manifesto, not an empirical study, so this chapter will not be filled with quantitative data, although the data support my concern. The disturbing trends I am describing must simply be summarized, and illustrated by telling and representative examples. (120)

The central thrust of her argument in Not for Profit is that universities need to own up to the social necessity of preparing young people for democracy — not merely careers in the most lucrative possible industries at a moment in time.  She believes that the disciplines of the humanities, and the less quantitative disciplines in the social sciences, are crucial for this task.  But she also believes that these disciplines are increasingly perceived by policy makers, the public, and even some university leaders as being irrelevant, useless, and unnecessary at a time when universities are struggling for financial stability.  (She refers, for example, to the cancellation of a major conference on the future of the humanities at a leading university for reasons that seem suspiciously commercial; 4.) And she believes that this is a global trend — not simply in the United States but in Europe and Asia as well. (One of the strengths of the book is Nussbaum’s effort to compare the developments that are underway in India and various European countries.)

So what is it that is of such value in the humanities? Here is what she calls the spirit of the humanities:

… searching critical thought, daring imagination, empathetic understanding of human experiences of many different kinds, and understanding of the complexity of the world we life in. (7)


Education is not just about the passive assimilation of facts and cultural traditions, but about challenging the mind to become active, competent, and thoughtfully critical in a complex world. (17)

Nussbaum believes that through studying literature, philosophy, the arts, and other fields of the humanities, the student is led to cultivate each of these qualities. And she believes that these qualities are crucial for a successful democracy; citizens need to have these abilities if a democratic society is to flourish.

I shall argue that cultivated capacities for critical thinking and reflection are crucial in keeping democracies alive and wide awake. (9)

In fact, she articulates a specific set of abilities that the humanities help to cultivate and that are crucial for active and effective citizenship (25).

Moreover, she believes that it is crucial that these experiences and opportunities for development should be available to the widest possible slice of American society — not simply the students in elite colleges and universities, but in the full range of colleges and community colleges in which the great majority of American young people receive their post-secondary educations.

Though she doesn’t put the point this way, perhaps it amounts to a claim that there are two value systems within which education exists.  One is utilitarian and profit-oriented; the goal of education is to produce the most productive workers possible and to permit rapid economic growth.  The other is moral and political; it has to do with instilling the values of democracy, justice, and humanity in young people as they prepare themselves for leadership in their generation. And the crisis she delineates is the result of favoring the first value system while ignoring the second.  This is important for the way we structure our institutions; it is equally important for how young people come to think about their lives.

Why are these qualities so important for a democracy?  Nussbaum doesn’t answer this question very specifically, but I think we can fill in the blanks. A modern society always embodies large group differences, competing interests, regional disagreements, religious and ethnic diversity, and other sources of strife.  If we don’t work fairly intelligently to create citizens who have qualities of mutual understanding and tolerance, and who have some of the capacities that underlie collaboration and compromise, then a democracy has the potential of unleashing great conflict and polarization.  So building a compassionate and temperate citizenry is a necessary step towards creating a vibrant and flourishing democracy.

This is a book that educators and policy makers should read attentively.  It is pragmatic and clear, and it sets a very different agenda for the goals that we should pursue in designing a university education. Her own moral commitments come through clearly — a commitment to social justice, a passionate recognition of universal human equality and worth, and a cosmopolitan view of our moral relations to people in other countries.  A decent society has shared commitments that extend beyond a desire for economic wellbeing; and these commitments are a great foundation for a successful democracy.


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