Over a century and half ago, Charles Dickens, in Hard Times, gave us a vivid portrait of the character Thomas Gradgrind - "a man of realities" for whom education is simply a matter of teaching "facts" and applying the useful skills of arithmetic to all our problems. For the likes of Gradgrind, the arts and humanities are just costly irrelevances.
In Not for Profit, Martha Nussbaum makes clear that not only are the Gradgrinds still with us, they are rapidly acquiring global dominance and influence over the way in which the next generation is being educated. Nussbaum, an eminent and distinguished scholar and philosopher at the University of Chicago, argues that this process has been encouraged and propelled by the economic pressures of globalization. The end effect of this process, if it carries on unchecked, will be "the suicide of the soul" and an erosion of our democratic culture.
Nussbaum's analysis of our predicament turns on a contrast between two rival models of education. The "old model," concerned with education for profit and economic growth, places heavy emphasis on the skills associated with science and technology. From this perspective, the study of literature, history, philosophy, languages and the arts make no real or significant contribution to our basic economic needs and concerns - they may even be obstacles.
In contrast, Nussbaum defends "the human development mode," which regards the humanities as having a crucial role in our commitment to a democratic community and social equality. This alternative approach is perhaps better described as the "ethical model," since in respect of both its method and content it aims to produce humane, sympathetic and creative "global citizens."
A healthy democratic society needs independent-minded and creative individuals
Most of Not for Profit is devoted to articulating the methods and content of the ethical model of education, along with a defence of its core aims and values. Democratic society, she argues, has priorities that are not secured or served by a population of subservient, uncritical and unimaginative cogs in an economic system with no greater goals or ambitions than profit. A healthy democratic society needs independent-minded and creative individuals who have the character and confidence to resist arbitrary authority and hierarchical attitudes. In order to produce such people, we need a form of education that encourages active dialogue that develops out of "Socratic questioning."
A heavy emphasis on passive learning of (dead) facts and a narrow focus on science and mathematics will not serve these ends. The humanities and arts provide a crucial source of critical reflection and concern for the lives and interests of others that simply cannot be provided by an education system concerned only with technical skills that have immediate economic application.
Throughout Not for Profit, Nussbaum catalogues the various ways in which the study of history, literature, languages and the arts enable children to develop into something more substantial than unthinking parts of the economic machinery. In pressing this argument, she is careful, nevertheless, to insist on the importance of science and mathematics, as well as an understanding of economics, as having a complementary and essential role in the full and complete education of our children.
This book will certainly add weight to Nussbaum's considerable reputation and influence as a major public intellectual. Her core diagnosis is both accurate and compelling. There are, nevertheless, features of this book that may be questioned.
Some may argue, for example, that Nussbaum's defence of the humanities leans too heavily on the political value we attach to these studies and, more particularly, on the specific ideological goals that they are supposed to secure. The general objection here is that it is a mistake simply to assume that the humanities' primary role is to serve as a vehicle for those progressive social forces concerned with issues of race, gender and sexuality. Although the contemporary humanities program has veered heavily in this particular direction, it is a matter of intense debate, within the humanities, to what extent this has been healthy and constructive. Clearly there are more traditional or conservative forces who take the view that this way of politicizing the humanities, of imposing a particular ideological agenda on its content and concerns, has not only narrowed and impoverished our understanding of humanities education, it has left the humanities vulnerable to hostile and reactionary forces only too willing to scrap them altogether.
Even those who share Nussbaum's view about the fundamental importance of the humanities, and worry about its neglect and erosion in contemporary society, may question her analysis on the grounds that it portrays the humanities as largely, if not exclusively, occupied by a liberal-left elite committed to a particular ideological agenda that must itself be debated and contested within the fabric and framework of the humanities and our wider democratic community.
Although criticism of this kind may be misdirected, Nussbaum's attempt to defend the importance of the humanities without more directly addressing these issues will leave many in the very audience she most needs to reach - those who do not regard the humanities with sufficient respect to sustain and support them - unconvinced and unmoved. I hope I am wrong about this, as Not for Profit is an important book with an urgent message that should be read and considered by the widest possible audience.
Paul Russell is a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia.