World-renowned intellectual Martha Nussbaum visited the University of Minnesota on March 7 to share her perspective on the current global education crisis, which she argues rivals the recent economic crisis in terms of long-term damaging effects. Nussbaum's newest book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, explores the impact of the trend toward education for profitability on the future of democratic governance. The focus on highly applied skills has led to the creation of an education system directed at molding "useful machines rather than complete citizens."
Robust world citizenship requires the ability to think critically, to transcend local loyalties, and to imagine sympathetically the lives of others. Education with a view toward economic ends hinges on an approach that undermines all three capabilities necessary for world citizenship. The view that education should exist as a means to promote economic growth has become pervasive around the world, which has resulted in the systematic destruction of arts and humanities programs.
Nussbaum offers an alternative to education for economic profitability: education for human development. Education for human development directly addresses the major impediments to democratic citizenship on an individual level. Rather than deference to authority and local situation, education for human development encourages the growth of democratic values. Nussbaum articulated three core components of this alterative approach.
First, this paradigm of education develops the capacity for individuals to think critically about their own reasoning and the reasoning of others, which fosters deliberative dialogue across perceived categories of difference. The ability to imagine alternative arguments, in particular, facilitates social inclusion. Critical thinking underpins liberal education pedagogy, but is largely absent from technical training.
Second, the human development approach to education allows students to situate themselves in the global political and historical reality. Nussbaum pointed out that to know is not to guarantee democratic or inclusive behavior, but to remain ignorant is almost to guarantee anti-democratic and exclusionary behavior. An education focused on widening awareness and promoting democratic engagement would offer exposure to world history and alternative historical narratives, depth of knowledge in at least one unfamiliar tradition, and significant training in at least one foreign language.
Third, Nussbaum's proposal focuses on the growth of the narrative imagination and the cultivation of sympathy. The arts and humanities are uniquely situated to refine the ability to imagine walking in someone else's shoes. Such an approach to education can be catered to particular cultural or personal blind spots. Furthermore, the arts bring together individuals in a nonhierarchical way--something rarely done in society and something that is inherently democratic.
Education for profitability amplifies the weaknesses of democracy, including its susceptibility to greed, haste, groupthink, and selfishness, whereas education for human development, a project that insists on the criticalness of the art and humanities, develops the personal qualities necessary for a robust democratic society. Nussbaum's education for human development offers individuals within nations the chance "to overcome fear and suspicion in favor of democratic debates."
Nussbaum's talk was sponsored by the University of Minnesota's Imagine Fund for the Arts, Humanities, and Design.
Written by Whitney Taylor.