It’s a popular drumbeat – the reason for the declining enrollment in college-level humanities classes is the deepening and largely imbalanced materialism of modern society. Humanities don’t make one rich, so young people drift to more profitable majors. The higher-education institutions respond to this trend by refurbishing the humanity courses they offer. Sometimes whole departments get to be eliminated; sometimes just courses are cut or curtailed. Such policies make it easier for students to skip the humanities. As a result, society becomes less and less versed in critical thinking and all other benefits humanities bestow.
And so on, and so forth. The drumbeat comes from all angles, and in fact, it is the right thing to say if you are an Humano-Academese. But oὐ μέντοι μὰ Δία, as Socrates Sensei would put it, sometimes the drums seem to beat from the very marketplace they denounce…
Martha Nussbaum is a prolific thinker who’s written on every new pop subject under the sun. Her latest endeavor is a book called Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (links to reviews/responses below). In her commencement address at Colgate University, she presented a summary of her argument. Below is an excerpt:
Our American democracy, like ancient Athens, is prone to hasty and sloppy reasoning, and to the substitution of invective for real deliberation. With the decline in newspapers and the increasing influence of an impoverished talk-radio culture of sound bites, we need Socrates in the classroom more urgently than ever. Critical argument gives people a way of being responsible: when politicians bring simplistic rhetoric their way, they won’t just accept it or reject it on the basis of a prior ideological commitment, they will investigate and argue, thinking for themselves, and learning to understand themselves. And when argument, not mere partisan feeling, takes the lead, people will also be able to interact with one another in a more reasonable way. Instead of seeing political disputes as occasions to score points for their own side, they will probe, investigate; they will learn where the other person’s argument shares common ground with their own; all this conduces to respect and understanding.
Sweeping generalizations sell well, but not to prospective students. In fact, students like me tend to tune out. I am far from sure that taking a large number of higher-ed humanities courses automatically results in better critical thinking outside the classroom. Or that “the masses” are uniformly stupid unless they take college-level humanities courses. Real-life forums provide much more spontaneous, and free-for-all, education. The Silver and Black Pride blog, for instance – you find there genuine and passionate discussion on topics ranging from football to politics to religion, Plato, great books, films, music and back. It is a Socratic dialogue at its best, there are no grades, and yet you get constant feedback about your progress.
Critical thinking and Socratic dialogue are buzzwords in business management, by the way. The best form of Socratic dialogue, according to the linked study, is one in which there is no Socrates guiding the discussion. Problem-based inquiry at its finest.
Reviews of Martha Nussbaum’s new book:
- Thomas Farrell’s first and second responses
- Geert Loving disagreeing with Martha’s apparent separation of humanities from technology:
It would be great if the ‘liberal arts’ approach would be radical untimely and be despised as a breading ground for young dissents, wild talent, impossible personalities. Instead it is just irrelevant. The liberal arts approach claims that their students do not derail, drop out and become better people. This could be the case. But what they lack is a basic interest in what’s going in society. They lack passion for the politics and culture of our fucked-up techno-society. Many of them are indifferent, if not hostile, to programming and code. […]Instead of fighting for ‘liberal arts’ as antidote I would argue to bring out, to play out, the technological in the humanities, and stop seeing them as opposites.
- Troy Jollimore’s review of Martha’s new book
- And this one, which cites a professor who disagrees that the market is responsible for the decline of humanities and who blames the humanists’ lousy teaching strategies instead.