Book Review: Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humantities by Martha Nussbaum
Nussbaum's impassioned defence of a liberal arts education is more of a manifesto than a philosophical text. She argues that a key aim of education in democratic societies needs to be producing citizens capable of thinking critically, and challenging the status quo, putting themselves in other people's shoes, global understanding, and an appreciation of the equality of persons. She then claims that studying the humanities with a Socratic pedagogical method is the key to attaining these aims. Nussbaum's text asks some vital questions of those designing school curricula and her vision of education is very persuasive to those of us who value freedom of thought.
However, I am, as ever, left with some lingering questions (no doubt that would be my ability to think critically manifesting itself), and I think Nussbaum's text requires further examination. In this brief review I will not examine this manifesto with any rigorous argument, but merely point out two particular reservations to provide food for further thought.
Liberal Arts vs. Rote Learning
Nussbaum's text celebrates the liberal arts style of education which she considers ubiquitous in America, thanks to the influence of thinkers like John Dewey, and relegates education in Europe to the drudgery of 'rote learning'. Since, for her, this is the only kind of teaching which produces responsible democratic citizens, capable of understanding and identifying with global, social, and religious issues in a meaningful way, Nussbaum needs to explain why the American people have elected Donald Trump as their leader, and the French have elected Emmanuel Macron. Trump's ability to empathise with others, and see political and economic issues from a global perspective, is not evidenced by his politics. He ran on a platform of dehumanising Mexican people, a platform of shaming the 'other', and won, which is something Nussbaum claims a liberal arts education is the best defence against.
Furthermore, of course, the French do not exhibit the drudgery of rote learning education in the way that Nussbaum designates. They are famous for the emphasis placed on philosophy in their high school curriculum. All students must take a certain amount, even students specialising in science, but for those who take a literature based route, the amount of philosophy they are required to understand and draw upon in argument is extremely impressive.
For myself in Britain, another nation where students are apparently consigned to monotonous rote learning, I find Nussbaum's assertions hard to swallow for two reasons. Firstly, because I teach at a school well known for its liberal arts program, its Socratic approach to education, and emphasis on global perspectives throughout the curriculum. And, secondly, from reflecting on my own education. I was certainly taught to learn a lot of information, but I was not discouraged from thinking critically about what I was learning, and the knowledge I had empowered me to answer difficult questions in different areas as I had something factual to draw upon. The idea that Socratic questioning is absent from the British classroom is patently absurd. I don't know a single teacher who does not ask searching questions of their students, and I was certainly made to think by my own teachers. When I went to university, I chose to go to an institution where I would be subjected to rigorous questioning by my tutors, as I enjoyed being made to think for myself, something I had learned in my apparently old-fashioned education during which I was being turned into an automaton to authority. I am not defending a knowledge based curriculum here, but Nussbaum's line between rote learning and democratic education is nonsense.
There is also a certain amount of irony here. Nussbaum criticises much of her own education, yet she is regarded as a wonderful philosopher and thinker. She disregards much European education, a source of some of the most influential thinkers about issues in social justice, equality in the modern era, including Brian Barry, Derek Parfit, and Harry Frankfurt.
Who Teaches Critical Thinking?
Throughout the book, Nussbaum suggests that it is the humanities which teach students to think critically, to interrogate evidence, to examine it from different perspectives, and come up with their own reasoned judgements. There is a continual assumption that this cannot be achieved in other subjects, or in different ways around the school. As a Chemistry teacher, I find this premise unconvincing: in science we continually teach students to think and engage critically with evidence, and we give them a toolkit for achieving this which transcends traditional subject boundaries.
There is a misconception about the nature of science which pervades science education at a school level, and often right through into the universities. And this is that science is somehow entirely objective, that what we currently understand is 'true' and cannot be challenged, that science is distinct in a meaningful way from all other subjects due to its 'scientific method' which is a step-by-step process which scientists undertake to uncover new knowledge, or facts about the world. All of these assumptions are false. Scientific ideas are continually rejected as new and better ideas are formulated. Although scientists aim at an objective truth that most practicing scientists accepts is out there somewhere, there is no evidence of when we might get there, or if such truths even exist. And I am not sure that any interesting scientific work has ever been carried out strictly according to the 'scientific method'!
Instead, scientists need to think critically, not only about the world and all of the observations that that are trying to explain, they also need to be wary of pre-existing scientific ideas which may be wrong. There are some famous examples, such as the rejection of the Ptolemaic model of the universe for the Copernican one. Much complex work had been done by scientists to fit their observations with Ptolemy's geocentric model, but it took Copernicus, among others, to question the authority of Ptolemy and reject his model for a better one. In schools students must be taught to think critically about scientific theories and laws in order to be good scientists.
The progress of science is non-linear. It does not follow the step-by-step guide suggested by the scientific method. Scientists respond to the unexpected and shift and change their plans and ideas about how best to progress. They think critically. Much of school science is premised on their understanding of the scientific method which is extremely problematic; it is not, however, a problem in British schools alone, but a global problem. Fortunately, one I do not have to trouble myself with as I teach IGCSE which has moved away from this conception of science (as, I believe, has the new GCSE). Good science teaching should teach students the practice of science as interconnected, non-linear, and contingent, and gives them experiences of doing science in this way themselves, so that they can become critical thinkers.
Of course, Nussbaum could argue that science clearly teaches students to think critically, but not in ways that are relevant to the nurturing of democratic citizens. However, the idea that just because one scientific theory is persuasive doesn't necessarily make it 'true' can be transferred powerfully into the political domain. The theory that 'immigrants are taking people's jobs' is persuasive to many people, and a better understanding of the tenuousness of explanations and an ability to call them into question is a key aspect of democratic citizenship. Furthermore, an understanding of the interdependent nature of science transfers to the interdependent world in which we live: changes in one domain of society, such as education, will have knock-on effects elsewhere, disasters on the other side of the world will have an impact at home, and an ability to interrogate these links is crucial for making responsible decisions as a citizen.
Nussbaum's book describes a beautiful image of education, and I certainly think there are aspects of it that we should be aiming for. When I was visiting friends at Columbia University in New York, I was extremely impressed by their ability to refer to great thinkers in their discussions with one another (a skill I lacked at the time, having studied Chemistry and not much else for four years). They explained to me that they took a core curriculum in their first year at Columbia which gave them a repertoire of ideas and arguments that they could use as a common language for their conversations. In particular the Literature Humanities course which had them reading texts such as:
Homer's Iliad and Oddessy
Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment
Woolf's To the Lighthouse
And the Contemporary Civilisations course:
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Politics
Machiavelli's The Prince and The Discourses
Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women
Tocqueville's Democracy in America
Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals/Ecco Homo
Foucault's Discipline and Punish
I felt that this was lacking in my education, and I have done everything in my power to make up for it ever since, through obsessive reading. I felt very inspired by the concept of a shared language for students to speak in, drawing on great thinkers across the ages.
Now, of course, drawing up any list like those above, is filled with controversy. Which books and thinkers should our students read? To what extent should we expect all students to understand different cultures, sub-cultures, and religions? Do we encourage certain political standpoints through the literature we promote? However, despite the challenges, I would like to see core reading lists, designated by each school in response to the particular challenges their students, and discussion groups with teachers and students responding to the literature critically. I envisage these in sixth forms, but they could potentially happen in high schools throughout the UK as well. Of course students read, but what they read is determined independently by the English, and History departments predominantly, and then supplemented by Classics, Philosophy, Religious Studies, Geography, the Sciences even, Art History, etc., and the core reading program I imagine is coordinated between all departments, including PHSE, according to the needs and contexts of students.
"Knowledge is no guarantee of good behaviour, but ignorance is a virtual guarantee of bad behaviour."
Having now described my own manifesto, do I recommend Not for Profit? Yes. Every now and then it is important for a teacher to challenge their broader understanding of the role of education in society. Nussbaum successfully defends the ideal of education as the bastion for democratic citizenship, and gives some persuasive reasons why the humanities are so crucial in education. She also remonds us of the power of Socratic questioning in every classroom. Although I have criticised some particular points, the text has made me think critically about the kind of education we offer at Bedales, and to what extent we are successful in that aim. And as part of the Curriculum Policy Group, I anticipate drawing on some of her arguments and ideas in the year to come.
Usefulness for classroom practice: 1/5