A sense of crisis and urgency hung over the crowd last Friday as Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, spoke at William & Mary of the possibility of a downfall in liberal arts education around the world.
Current democratic societies – and their educational systems -- are too focused on short-term economic gain, and as such need to refocus their attention on the humanities and arts, Nussbaum said. The age of a liberal arts education may soon simply be a footnote in history, she said.
“In recent times, I’ve been worried not just about what the curriculum shall be, but whether or not liberal arts education will continue to exist, at all,” said Nussbaum, the eminent American philosopher and acclaimed is the author of more than 15 books about social civics and ethics.
“Eager for national profit, nations and their systems of education are vehemently discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive.”
Nussbaum was at William & Mary to take part in the College’s annual Charter Day celebrations where she would receive an honorary degree of doctor of humane letters.
Nussbaum’s talk, titled “Liberal Arts Education and Global Citizenship,” is the fourth in a series of campus conversations that are part of a year-long effort sponsored the Office of the Provost to address the roles of a liberal arts university in the 21st century. Previous topics have covered the role of William & Mary’s professional programs, the right blend of teaching and research and whether a liberal arts university is even possible.
Global issues in the liberal arts curriculum was another topic that the conversation’s steering committee believed was an important issue, said Provost Michael R. Halleran in introducing Nussbaaum. He also said the community was fortunate to have someone such as Nussbaum -- who has been named “America’s most prominent philosopher of public life” – available to help explore the issues tied so closely to William & Mary’s strategic plan.
“The extraordinary breadth of her range is matched only by her incisive arguments, deep learning, and passionate convictions,” Halleran said when introducing Nussbaum.
A worldwide crisis in education
During her 90-minute talk, Nussbaum highlighted that democracies can only thrive when citizens are not machines and can think for themselves. However, in virtually every nation in the world, humanities and social sciences are being cut out of higher education for what some people say are skills that are more useful for the economy as a whole.
“I think we’re in a midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global commitment and I don’t mean the global economic crisis that began in 2008,” Nussbaum said. “A crisis that goes largely unnoticed, a crisis that is likely to be, I think, will be far more disabling to the future of democracies worldwide, a worldwide crisis in education.”
She then highlighted two examples of countries that have taken steps to lower the significance of the humanities and arts in their education systems.
In 2006, the United States released a report in which they acknowledged the deficiency of education and applied learning for the benefit of short-term national economic gain. However, the report itself chose to overlook the importance of the humanities and the arts, she said.
“By omitting them, the report strongly suggested that it would be perfectly alright if [humanities and arts] were allowed to wither away for more useful skills,” she said.
Last fall, Nussbaum continued, the British government set guidelines that researchers at universities would only get funding if it could be demonstrated that the research at hand would directly benefit the national economy.
“The humanities and arts will now be forced to become pitchmen for products, and they will be able to justify their contributions only if they can benefit short-term economic impact,” she said.
Keys to a healthy democracy
Nussbaum identified three key abilities that needed to be produced within a country to keep a healthy democracy going: the ability to challenge authority and deliberate well with other peers, the ability to think for the good of a nation as a whole, and the ability to have a concern for the lives of others.
These abilities, she said, could only be produced through the Socratic debates and rigorous curriculum that only a liberal arts institution could provide.
“Knowledge is certainly not a guarantee of good behavior, but ignorance is a virtual guarantee of bad behavior,” Nussbaum said.
In terms of what a liberal arts curriculum should consist of, Nussbaum stressed the importance of learning about other cultures’ preferences and characteristics through culture classes and language studies.
“It’s the very delicate exercise of understanding that an intelligent group of people have carved up the world in a certain way, and that all translation is really a kind of interpretation that shows you a lot about human differences,” she said. “And I think it’s very hard to go into the world without that.”
In the end, Nussbaum said that nations of the world have great resources, but only when they can control their resources to create citizens who are worth conversing with and people who are deserving of respect and sympathy, can a nation really “foster democracy.”
“So what will we have if these trends continue?” she asked the audience, “Nations of technically trained people who don’t know how to criticize authority, useful profit makers with defused imaginations, or as [Indian philosopher, and educator Rabindranath] Tagore put it, a suicide of the soul.”