While we often criticize the humanities for not providing an education that leads directly to employment, one philosopher argues they have an even more important role to play in our societies.
We’ve discussed before that Socrates, one of the greatest things to come out of Athens, hated Athenian democracy. While he had many reasons to do so, one of the primary ones was that the typical Athenian had no idea what they were discussing, and were prone to using emotion over reason when making important political decisions. They lacked both the skills for critical thinking and viewing the world outside their own perspective to be proper democratic citizens.
But, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues, we can avoid those problems by placing a high value on an education in the humanities. A high value which today is often difficult to find.
In her book Not for Profit, Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Nussbaum lays out the case that a job oriented education, one focused on preparing students for work, is far from enough to assure that the students will also be able to function as democratic citizens in a pluralistic, modern, and globalized, society.
While she doesn’t deny the need for technical education; she argues that a purely job oriented education, or even one which is highly focused on a narrow field of study, does not promote the development of critical thinking skills, the ability to consider differing viewpoints, an understanding of people vastly different from themselves, or strong methods for finding truth for themselves that people need as citizens.
These skills, she argues, are best found in the arts and humanities as promoted by a liberal arts education at all levels. While the United States is doing well at the university level of teaching these things, she contests that we are often unwilling or unable to do so at the grade school or high school level. If we do not assure students have access to the arts and humanities, she posits, we are likely to fall victim to demagoguery and lose the benefits of a modern democratic society.
Well, what’s wrong with our current method of teaching the humanities? Why write a whole book on this?
A major issue in modern American education she discusses is the increasing use of standardized fill in the bubble tests, and the tendency of teachers to “teach to the test”. It isn’t impossible to teach the humanities in a way that can be easily tested, the treatment of philosophy as a test subject for the A and O level exams in the United Kingdom has shown that much, but Nussbaum shows us how a multiple-choice test is unlikely to encourage any skills other than the regurgitation of information. They aren’t even that good at what they claim to do anyway.
With the national focus increasingly given to education for employment and competitiveness those parts of education which seem unlikely to lead to employment are the most simple to justify cuts to. Nussbaum laments this, and notes that at her own university advertising geared towards new students focuses nearly exclusively on those programs seen as practical and leading to employment. She dubs the combination of funding cuts and lack of attention a “crisis of massive proportions” which is still underway.
Suppose we just got rid of the humanities. Can’t we be a free people without them?
The myriad examples of tyrants attacking the arts and humanities suggests we might be wise to hold on to them. She cites, among other events, the prohibition of teaching the Korean language in public schools and the crackdown on Confucian education in general during Korea’s occupation by Imperial Japan. All a key part of the plan to reduce the Korean people to servants of Japanese imperialism, a role which had no need for a non-technical education.
Nussbaum later argues that the most cartoonish and often horrifying mistakes made by the Athenian democracy, which caused thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to reject democracy, could have been easily avoided if the population had any of the skills an education in the humanities provides.
The Funeral Oration of Pericles, an example of the Athenians being led by a populist working in their interest. Often, they were only led astray.
Is she alone in these ideas? Does anybody else argue that a democracy requires these skills?
Socrates, as depicted in The Republic, favored an intensive education for the philosopher kings he saw as the ideal rulers of his utopia. While his proposed curriculum is not the liberal arts education Americans know today, it is one that promotes the search for truth with the use of reason and logic and assures that the leaders of the city state will know not only how to lead, but how to approach the problems they may face as leaders. While he didn’t wish for the majority to lead a nation, it is clear he understood that those who do lead must have certain intellectual skills. In a democracy, these leaders are the people.
Aldous Huxley, philosopher, author of Brave New World, and noted psychonaut, made a similar observation in Brave New World, Revisited. Where he noted with terror that the world was moving towards his dystopia much faster than he had predicted and proposed education for democracy as a key tool to prevent this. He later elaborated on his proposed curriculum for a free people in his utopian work Island.
Okay, what does our situation look like now?
We presently have a better education system than the people of Athens; who ended their formal education in adolescence and denied it to women and non-citizens. Often inspired by Socrates and his pedagogy, today’s students can find a humanistic education in the American, Scottish, and (increasingly) Korean education systems dedicated to making them fully rounded individuals and citizens.
While Nussbaum warns us to be on the lookout to attacks on and financial cutbacks to the liberal arts model of education, we have reason to be optimistic as well. She mentions many excellent programs in American schools, such as Future Problem Solvers, as examples of democratic education done correctly and in a way that assures continued support.
The study of the humanities can have many practical uses. It can even be used to find employment, no matter what the nay-sayers might tell you. More importantly, they have an intrinsic value in allowing us to fully develop as individuals. In today’s climate, they also take on the role of helping us make democracy possible. Without a proper education in the humanities, where we learn how to understand people we may never meet, how to evaluate arguments and charged rhetoric, and imagine differing scenarios from those we see every day, we may be doomed to the fate of many a failed democracy before us.
But, if we utilize the fantastic tools we have access to, rise to the challenge of giving everyone the education they need, and emphasize all vital subject matter-even if it seems impractical, Nussbaum argues that we have much reason for optimism and the chance for the continued success of democracy all over the world.
Sure, the old Greek guys from 2,400 years ago get all the glory. But these living philosophers have a ton to say about life, the universe, and everything as it relates to right now.
It can be easy to think that all the good ideas have already been thought; after all, philosophy have been going on for more than 2500 years. But that isn't true! There are still some genius philosophers out there, of course. Here, we give you ten living people with ideas worth learning about.
One of the most cited philosophers of the modern age, Chomsky has written extensively on linguistics, cognitive science, politics, and history. His work has had an effect on everything from developmental psychology to the debates between rationalism and empiricism, and led to a decline of support for behaviorism. He remains an active social critic and public intellectual, including here on Big Think.
“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”
Zizek is a modern Marxist who has commented extensively on culture, society, theology, psychology, and our tendency to view the world through the lens of “Ideology”. He has devoted a great deal of time to updating the idea of Dialectic Materialism. He is also a frequent Big Think contributor.
“Humanity is OK, but 99% of people are boring idiots.”
Cornel is an American philosopher who focuses on politics, religion, race, and ethics. Hardly shy for the camera, West is often seen on television talk shows and even had a cameo in the Matrixfilms. His work has expanded on the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois on more than one occasion, and continues to focus on the issues of being an “Other” in modern society. His Big Think videos can be found here.
“The Enlightenment worldview held by Bu Bois is ultimately inadequate, and, in many ways, antiquated, for our time.”
An American philosopher at the University of Chicago, Martha has written about subjects as diverse as ancient Greek philosophy, ethics, feminism, political philosophy, and animal rights. Along with Amartya Sen, she also developed the Capability Approach which inspired the United Nations Human Development Index.
“Now the fact that Aristotle believes something does not make it true. (Though I have sometimes been accused of holding that position!)”
Alasdair Macintyre is a Scottish Philosopher who has written on ethics and morality, political philosophy, theology, and the history of philosophy. His most popular book, After Virtue, helped to fuel a resurgence in Virtue Ethics. His thought shifted from a Marxist view in his early work to one that combines his former Marxism with his new Catholicism and Neo-Aristotelian insights.
“We are waiting not for Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
An American philosopher, cognitive scientist, and one of the so-called Four Horsemen of New Atheism. He has written on free will for decades, and supports the compatibilist view. He has also written on how philosophers think, explaining how the idea of the “Intuition pump” can both mislead and enlighten us. He also has very many interesting interviews with Big Think.
“The Darwinian Revolution is both a scientific and a philosophical revolution, and neither revolution could have occurred without the other.”
An analytic philosopher working at Columbia University, Dr. Kitcher has done extensive work on the philosophy of science itself. His work has focused recently on the criteria for “good” science, and the philosophy of climate change.
"A great scientific theory, like Newton's, opens up new areas of research... Because a theory presents a new way of looking at the world, it can lead us to ask new questions, and so to embark on new and fruitful lines of inquiry."
A modern consequentialist who puts his money where his ideas are. Author of The Life You Can Save, a book on how utilitarianism demands altruism from you right now, he went on to create an organization dedicated to the idea. He has also written on animal rights, and is a vegetarian. His stances on euthanasia and quality of life have been the cause of a great many protests over the years, often preventing him from speaking. His Big Think videos help explain his philosophy.
“We are responsible not only for what we do but also for what we could have prevented.”
An Indian philosopher and Nobel Prize laureate who was worked for decades in welfare economics, capability theory, and on the questions of justice. He often writes on the need to view the implementation of philosophical ideals in degrees of success, rather than as “existent” or “non-existent”. His work went on to inspire Martha Nussbaum, and they continue to compliment each other’s work.
“Democracy has to be judged not just by the institutions that formally exist but by the extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard”
An American philosopher who has written on gender, politics, ethics, the self, and cultural pressures. She developed the theory of gender performativity, arguing that no gender exists beyond actions used to express a gender role. Her Big Think work can be found here.
“There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very "expressions" that are said to be its results.”