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'There Is No Values-Free Form Of Education,' Says U.S. Philosopher

  • Robert Coalson

Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum

“Young people all over the world, in any nation lucky enough to be democratic, need to grow up to be participants in a form of government in which people inform themselves about crucial issues they will address as voters,” writes U.S. academic Martha Nussbaum in her 2010 book, “Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities.” Without support from suitably educated citizens, "no democracy can remain stable.”

Nussbaum is a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago and the founder of the Center for Comparative Constitutionalism. A distinguished academic and the author of more than a dozen books, Nussbaum was recently included on “Foreign Policy” magazine’s list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

Although Nussbaum’s book “Not For Profit” was written primarily out of concern that the education system in the United States is failing to produce sufficiently engaged citizens to sustain its democracy, her arguments resonate in any country trying to build or maintain an open, representative system based on accountability and elections.

She argues that from the earliest years, education should be based primarily on exploration, understanding in depth, and the development of logical, critical thinking. Such an emphasis, she says, not only produces a citizenry capable of recognizing and rooting out political jingoism and intolerance. It also produces people capable of questioning authority and perceived wisdom in ways that enhance innovation and economic competitiveness. Nussbaum warns against a narrow educational focus on technical competence.

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson recently spoke to Nussbaum about the connection between the humanities and democracy and about how a government’s education policies can be an indicator of its commitment to democratic development.

RFE/RL: You argue that a successful, long-term democracy depends on a citizenry with certain qualities that can be fostered by education. Could you outline those qualities and describe how schools can foster them?

Martha Nussbaum: Sure. There are three that I focus on. The first is the capacity we associate in the Western tradition with Socrates, but it certainly appears in all traditions -- that is, the ability to think critically about proposals that are brought your way, to analyze an argument, to distinguish a good argument from a bad argument. And just in general, to lead what Socrates called “the examined life.” Now that’s, of course, important because we know that people are very prone to go along with authority, with fashion, with peer pressure. And this kind of critical enlivened citizenry is the only thing that can keep democracy vital.

And, of course, that is a capacity that all human beings are born with in some form, but it really needs to be trained. And I think it can be trained from very early in a child’s education. There’re ways that you can get quite young children to recognize what’s a good argument and what’s a bad argument. And as children grow older, it can be done in a more and more sophisticated form until by the time they’re undergraduates in universities they would be studying Plato’s dialogues for example and really looking at those tricky arguments and trying to figure out how to think.

And this is important not just for the individual thinking about society, but it’s important for the way people talk to each other. In all too many public discussions people just throw out slogans and they throw out insults. And what democracy needs is listening. And respect. And so when people learn how to analyze an argument, then they look at what the other person’s saying differently. And they try to take it apart, and they think: “Well, do I share some of those views and where do I differ here?” and so on. And this really does produce a much more deliberative, respectful style of public interaction.

The second [quality] is what I call “the ability to think as a citizen of the whole world.” We’re all narrow and this is again something that we get from our animal heritage. Most non-human animals just think about the group. But, of course, in this world we need to think, first of all, our whole nation -- its many different groups, minority and majority. And then we need to think outside the nation, about how problems involving, let’s say, the environment or global economy and so on need cooperative resolution that brings together people from many different nations.

That’s complicated and it requires learning a lot of history, and it means learning not just to parrot some facts about history but to think critically about how to assess historical evidence. It means learning how to think about the global economy. And then I think particularly important in this era, it means learning something about the major world religions. Learning complicated, nonstereotypical accounts of those religions because there’s so much fear that’s circulating around in every country that’s based usually on just inadequate stereotypes of what Muslims are or whatever. So knowledge can at least begin to address that.

Then the third thing, which I think goes very closely with the other two, is what I call “the narrative imagination,” which is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of another person to have some understanding of how the world looks from that point of view. And to really have that kind of educated sympathy with the lives of others.

Now again this is something we come into the world with. Psychologists have now found that babies less than a year old are able to take up the perspective of another person and do things, see things from that perspective. But it’s very narrow and usually people learn how to think about what their parents are thinking and maybe other family members but we need to extend that and develop it, and learn how the world looks from the point of view of minorities in our own culture, people outside our culture, and so on.

And that I think it is most easily accomplished -- since we can’t go to all the places that we need to understand -- it’s accomplished by reading narratives, reading literature, drama, participating through the arts in the thought processes of another culture. So literature and the arts are the major ways we would develop and extend that capacity.

RFE/RL: Your book discusses something called the Human Development paradigm. What are its key elements and what implications does it have for developing countrie

Nussbaum: For many years, the leading model of development ... used by economists and international agencies measuring welfare was simply that for a country to develop means to increase [its] gross domestic product per capita. Now, in recent years, there has been a backlash to that because people feel that it just doesn’t ask enough about what goods are really doing for people, what can people really do and be.

And so since 1990s the United Nations’ development program has produced annually what’s called a “Human Development Report” that looks at things like access to education, access to health care. In other words, a much richer menu of human chances and opportunities that people have. And at the theoretical end I’ve worked for about 20 years now with economist Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in 1998 for economics. And we’ve developed this as account of -- so for us what it is for a country to do better is to enhance the set of capabilities meaning substantial opportunities that people have to lead meaningful, fruitful lives. And then I go on to focus on a certain core group of those capabilities that I think ought to be protected by constitutional law in every country.

RFE/RL: And those are?

Nussbaum: Life; health; bodily integrity; the development of senses, imagination, and thought; the development of practical reason; opportunities to have meaningful affiliations both friendly and political with other people; the ability to have emotional health -- not to be in other words dominated by overwhelming fear and so on; the ability to have a productive relationship with the environment and the world of nature; the ability to play and have leisure time, which is something that I think people don’t think enough about; and then, finally, control over one’s material and social environment, some measure of control. Now of course, each of these is very abstract, and I specify them further. Although I also think that each country needs to finally specify them with its own particular circumstances in view.

RFE/RL: I was intrigued by your description of the hands-on aspect – the importance of children learning where common objects come from and how they are made. Why is this important?

Nussbaum: Well, when kids learn in a classroom that just makes them sit in a chair, well, they can take in something in their heads, but it doesn’t make them competent at negotiating in the world. And so starting, at least, with Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century, people thought: “Well, if we really want people to be independent citizens in a democracy that means that we can’t have whole classes of people who don’t know how to do anything, who are just simply sitting there waiting to be waited on in practical matters.” And so the idea that children should participate in their practical environment came out of the initial democratizing tendencies that went running through the 18th century.

But then another thing that happened is that people understood that this is an awfully good way of teaching children about the whole world. So, for example, if children are weaving some cloth, you can use that as a history lesson. You can say, how did people really make cloth in different times and places? You can use it also as an economics lesson. You can say well where did this thread actually come from? Who produced that thread? What kind of labor was used in the making of this thread? And so you can really ramify out until you’re thinking about your whole nation or often many parts of the world in a way you never did before. But it’s all easy for the child to take in because it’s all about that one piece of cloth that she’s weaving right now.

RFE/RL: Some people might argue that governments -- even some Western democracies -- might not actually want the kind of engaged citizens you describe. Is it realistic to expect them to implement such policies?

Nussbaum: Well, I think what’s so interesting is that even countries who absolutely do not want that kind of engaged citizenry see that for the success of business these abilities are pretty important. Both Singapore and China have conducted mass education reforms over the last five years because they realized that their business cultures don’t have enough imagination and they also don’t have enough critical thinking, because you can have awfully corrupt business culture if no one is willing to say the unpleasant word or make a criticism.

So they have striven to introduce more critical thinking and more imagination into their curricula. But, of course, for them, they want to cordon it off -- they want to do it in the science classroom, in the business classroom, but not in the politics classroom. Well, we’ll see -- can they do that? Can they segment it that way? I think democratic thinking is awfully hard to segment as current events in the Middle East are showing us. It does have the tendency to spread.

And so maybe the people in Singapore and China will not like the end result of what they tried to do or maybe the reform will just fail, which is equally likely -- I mean the educational reform.

But in other countries, yes, I mean, if you really don’t want democracy, this is not the education for you. It had its origins in the ancient Athenian democracy which was a very, very strong participatory democracy and it is most at home in really true democracy, where our whole goal is to get each and every person involved and to get them thinking about things. So, of course, if politicians have ambivalence about that goal they may well not want this kind of education.

RFE/RL: How do you respond to critics who charge that what you are advocating is some sort of experiment in social engineering – governments telling people how to think?

Nussbaum: The thing is that, of course, when we bring up children in the family or in the school, we are always engineering. I mean, there is no values-free form of education in the world. Even an education that just teaches you a list of facts has values built into it. Namely, it gives a negative value to imagination and to the critical faculties and a very high value to a kind of rote, technical competence. So, you can't avoid shaping children.

And, of course, we want to shape children. As they come into the world they are very wonderful, but they don't get very far in adult life without being shaped. And so, then the question is what way do we want to do it. What kind of people do we want them to be?

Now, of course, my view is that increasingly the child should be in control and should become free. And that's what the critical thinking is all about -- it's about promoting freedom as the child goes on. So, the end product should be an adult who is really thinking for him- or herself about the direction of society. But you don't get freedom just by saying, "Oh, you are free." Progressive educators that simply stopped teaching found out very quickly that that didn't produce freedom. Even some of the very extreme forms of progressive school where children were just allowed to say every day what it was they wanted to learn, they found that didn't give the child the kind of mastery of self and of the world that you really need to be a free person. So, I think, then, if we want freedom, we have to produce it -- and this is a recipe for doing that.

RFE/RL: Many of our broadcast countries have quite conservative traditions with strong influence of the Orthodox Church or of Islam. Wouldn’t they see the educational model you are endorsing as a threat to their long-standing cultural and community values?

Nussbaum: Well, of course, I can only speak to what I have some experience in. I can certainly say that in India, which, after all, is the second-largest Muslim nation in the world, these ideas are extremely appealing and the empowerment of women – the education of women – is one of the top [priorities] of Muslims and Hindus alike. And also Indonesia is very attached to this kind of thing.

But even in more conservative Islamic societies -- I was in Jordan recently and I was delighted to see that a lot of these ideas are very much built into the structure of both schools and higher education and, indeed, that women are extremely empowered in Jordanian society. Did you know that 75 percent of the students at the University of Jordan in Amman are female? And they are getting all this stuff.

So, of course, Jordan is relatively liberal. I don't think you'd find exactly the same thing in Saudi Arabia, but we'll have to see how the world develops. And we'll find out how far people are going to stand against the demands for democratic participation and democratic freedom that is now sweeping across the Middle East.
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to

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