James Garvey talks to Martha Nussbaum in The Philosophers' Magazine Online:
“We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance. No, I do not mean the global economic crisis….I mean a crisis that goes largely unnoticed, like a cancer; a crisis that is likely to be, in the long run, far more damaging to the future of democratic self-government: a world-wide crisis in education.” That’s the opening blast from Martha Nussbaum’s new book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.
She starts by identifying a global trend. Policy-makers, universities, and even entire nations are discarding the humanities and focusing instead on academic subjects linked to economic growth. She then makes a case for a connection between liberal arts education, free-thinking citizens, and healthy democracy. Pull the plug on the liberal arts, and you no longer have the sort of people able to do the things required for democratic citizenship. Barely a page into the book and we’re warned that “nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticise tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.” Strong stuff. Are things really that bad?
“I don’t write in this alarmist way usually,” she says, “in fact in my book Cultivating Humanity the whole point was to say that insofar as higher education is concerned the changes that we’re seeing are on balance very positive. We’re confronting the new complexity of the world better. We’re educating ourselves about women, about race, about non-western cultures much better. But now, I feel, it’s not true any longer.”
She talks about some American universities which have closed their philosophy departments. “If it’s happening in the US – where the liberal arts system is deeply entrenched, where you have a system of private philanthropy which is also deeply entrenched, and where the tax system gives you strong incentives for that kind of philanthropy – it’s happening all the more in other countries. All over Europe people are reporting big cuts in the humanities.”
She’s aware of plans in the UK to distribute funding in higher education based in part on the economic impact of research. The very idea makes philosophers wince.