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

Martha NussbaumMartha Nussbaum
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Martha Nussbaum
Martha Nussbaum

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By Robert Coalson
“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
s?

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.

Robert Coalson

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Sergey from: Chicago, USA
February 21, 2011 18:12
Excellent article by thoughtful academic. I would add this: pure democracy cannot exist anywhere in the world because the word "democracy" (People's power") implies that All people (or at least all adults) are engaged in running the country or locality/municipality. It does not happen anywhere in the world. In the US and other republics, people elect representatives to run the government on the National (Federal) or local level. That's called "Republican" form of government.

What is necessary is first and foremost make sure that those that vote have a basic intellectual ability to do so. You are not allowed anywhere in the world to drive a car without a driver's license and you need to pass a written and driving exam in order to get this license.

I think that In the US (and in any more or less civilized country) voting should also have its own voting license that would require that the potential voter to pass a written test on the basic knowledge of US Government and History and the Voting License should be renewed through renewal test every 2 years (or every major election cycle) to insure that the voter remains intellectually alert and in sound mind.

If you cannot read, write and comprehend a basic information, you should NOT vote. Ignorant voters should not be voters at all.
In Response

by: Robert Coalson from: Prague
February 22, 2011 08:49
Hello, Sergey,

Thanks for reading and for continuing the discussion with your comment. I can't speak for Nussbaum, of course, but based on my conversation with her and my reading of her book, I'm pretty sure she'd oppose the suggestion of a test for voters. Such a system would be very easy to abuse, giving way too much power to those who write and administer such tests. It could easily be turned into a way of disenfranchising whole segments of the population -- I could easily imagine systems the discriminated against the poor, or against particular races or religions.

Perhaps more importantly, such a system would likely lead to the degradation of the education system, rather than its improvement. As soon as you have a test, teachers start teaching "toward the test" and students start memorizing what they need to pass the test -- exactly the kind of rote memorization that Nussbaum argues is harmful to democracy.

A student who was the product of the kind of education Nussbaum advocates -- a student with developed facilities for critical thinking -- would question such a test itself -- why is this question being asked and this one ignored? What are the presuppositions behind this question and are they correct? Etc -- and therefore might well not pass it.

What Nussbaum argues, I think, is that the RIGHT to vote has to be inviolable for everyone, but that everyone has an obligation to think seriously about their RESPONSIBILITY to vote and to vote wisely (both for themselves and for their children). Moreover, the government has to create for everyone the opportunities necessary to take that responsibility seriously, by fostering an education system that is accessible and has the other qualities she discusses in the interview.
In Response

by: Sergey from: Chicago, USA
February 26, 2011 09:55
OK, Robert, I understand your argument. However, I am 100% sure that there should be a certain procedure to make sure that those who vote have at least a basic comprehension what they vote for. Voting is a huge responsibility and it should not be taken lightly.

There were periods in US and the world history when voting rights were reserved only for a small percentage of populations (i.e. free property owners). While I am not suggesting to return to this times, but I think that some votes should have more weight than other votes based on individual contribution to society (i.e. through military or public safety service, through a contribution to local economy and some other easily defined criteria). The idea that one person-one vote and every vote is equal is very questionable idea because it puts in the same league some 18 year old guy or gal who just started life and some outstanding citizen (I.e. military veteran) who contributed a lot to the society.

I would summarize my views like this: Let everyone who meets basic eligibility of this or that country vote, but let also establish a system in which voters are separated into categories based on their individual contributions to the society and based on this, weigh their votes differently. In the US, for example I would reserve a certain percentage of votes to citizens who contributed to the society through military or public service or through contribution to local economy. Otherwise, voting may become a vehicle for a variety of charlatans to gain power.

by: Chris Gong from: Pasadena, CA
February 23, 2011 21:28
I agree with 100% what Nussbaum says on education and the need for a liberal art approach to the education of a good citizen. I just want to say something I observed as a foreign, female college student in science. I think her thinking on education needs to be specifically emphasized to the massive amount of foreign students in this nation. Many of them, me included, heard first of the reputation of American's higher education mainly in the science area. Many would claim there is a language barrier, but I think that is over exaggerated. I think many foreign students are able to understand and appreciate a Shakespear play or a Greek tragedy under guidance, and for the American educators to think since these foreign students are not from the western culture, therefore wouldn't be interested reading about the western culture in depth is misleading and narrow minded. The science in U.S. is leading the world, precisely because the over abundance of talented foreign grad students and postdocs immigrating here, willing to accept minimal pay to do research, and this is reinforcing the society's increasing interest in science, and making their children believe that the only worthwhile education is in science, which leads to the symptom Nussbaum has pointed out, this unhealthy imbalance of emphasis in modern schools. I said all this while being a Caltech student, but I do come from a liberal art college background, and I can say the latter is a much more worthwhile education than the former, the latter has taught me to be a better person, the former teaching me the professsionalized version of science that has been ruling the earth since 19 century. I think today's meaning of science competency is overwhelmingly lacking the kind of spirit and interest found in early science, or "natural philosophy". Today's science is overwhelmingly riddled with formulation of someone else, and when ten examples is enough to give a clear "moral of the story", we are teaching students a hundred of them again and again, when in reality we all need to learn for think for ourselves with the "moral of the story". Students also have less and less patient, the false image of a genius student is about 12 year old solving rubik cubes in 13 seconds, whereas we have less and less reflective and visionary individuals in our best schools who can connect across disciplines and think more humanistically about any discipline and problem.


by: Chris Gong from: Pasadena, CA
February 23, 2011 21:29
Another thing I want to say is the science education for female students. As a female student of science, I think there's a false notion from the traditionally masculine culture of science community that female students serve the same purpose and role as the traditional male scientists, at their best, that is to say, often at certain sacrifice of personal life and family life. But no. There is a huge novelty in educating female students about science, because one huge distinction between the expectation of being a boy and being a girl is curiosity. Boys are encouraged to be curious, to always go first when encountering the unknown, whereas girls are not encouraged to be curious and were taught that it is not an attractive quality. If I get the stereotype right, most girls get their dose of the "howstuffworks" from Vanity Fair makeup page, whereas boys know they own the whole natural world to their disposal. Girls should be curious, and no better place to break that spell from society's and family's expectation than to study science, and these young women will grow up to be mothers, who in turn will determine the culture of numerous families. Curious mums bring up curious and critical children. So I think the whole scientific community has to think further: instead of putting their energy into just educating teachers in the class room, or people running the science outreach, we need to pay attention to the family influence. We are ignoring the moms at such events who are less curious than their children, and we are definitely paying a price for it.

by: Jalmer osmth from: USA
February 28, 2011 04:47
A thought on the Election process and possibly room for improvement, Where the "elected representatives" or "candidate elects" are the ones whom should be tested and if need be, academically aligned with Constitutional foundations, and procedures. They are to be the Law makers and the freedom to Vote should not be limited by any other condition than proof of citizenship. Even if they are only capable of marking with an"X", they should be entitled to cast that Vote. It is the individuals decision, to be educated on the issues, The Elected, are the ones to enact the Laws for the Voter.

by: Wendy Watson from: U.K.
March 03, 2011 19:21
'...by the time they’re undergraduates in universities...'

Most people alive today will never be undergraduates; they cannot afford such an education.

'...people just throw out slogans and they throw out insults.'

A significant number of the people throwing out the slogans graduated with humanities degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the world.

by: Philosopher's Beard
March 10, 2011 11:05
Professor Nussbaum is a humanities professor, but she is trying to advance a social science thesis. It's all very well to talk about a single plausible mechanism in isolation - teaching people to imagine other people's perspectives through literature But proper social science requires some attempt to put this into perspective. 1) significance: how important is this mechanism in the real world (as compared to others, like employability)?; and 2) operation: how does this mechanism play out in the real world, and particularly how does it interact with others?

Even a cursory look at how the world is seems problematic for Nussbaum's claims. For example, one would expect that literature departments of universities should be sites of deeply civilised sensitive caring humanely democratic values. Hah. In contrast, one would expect that businesses would be sites of terror and insults - but in fact they are generally very pleasant and civil environments (far more so than many literature or ethics departments in universities).
In Response

by: Max Bini from: Australia
March 16, 2011 05:03
To Philosopher's Beard - your comments beg the question against Profeesor Nussbaum. First, the notion that one should leave social science to the social scientists or at least to their established procedures completely ignores her call for an educated public able to argue intelligently across disciplines. Second, your comparison of places of business with literature departments (although a gross generalization it admittedly rings true) ignores the point that the society Professor Nussbaum is seeking to help "engineer" is yet to exist.

Another aside about the heading of this article: Why is this statement being treated as controversial "There is no values-free form of education"?

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