Book Review: Cultivating Humanity by Martha C. Nussbaum

Throughout the midst of the culture wars, Martha Nussbaum gives a definitive account of reforming our liberal education from a classical point of view.  She boldly, yet cautiously defends the liberal education that is desperately needed in higher education.  What is the problem?

The typical replies against this liberal education is that:

  • this tears apart tradition.  The students will gain new ideas that has no anchor to their upbringing.
  • this constant questioning of their beliefs and ideas just makes students confused.
  • this make students the (false) assumption that they are being indoctrinated with multiculturalism and getting away from their roots.

Nussbaum gives a careful introduction into what a true education is by using the classics to help her case.

She starts with Socrates and his method.  I have mentioned the benefits of the method in a previous post but to repeat, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  By examining our lives, we truly understand why we have the beliefs that we do.  If not, we may be repeating the same mistakes that has happened in the past.  Thus, if our beliefs were bad, we can correct them.  If our beliefs were good, then we at least know that they were good and we can justify them.  What’s wrong with that?  We often see any form of questioning our beliefs as a bad thing.  It’s not!  Doubt is helpful because it admits honesty into who we are.  It provides a clearing into knowledge instead of dogma.  And it cultivates wisdom instead of remaining in ignorance.  Clarity through learning is the key, not following the crowd.  This can only be done by questioning.

Nussbaum next uses Diogenes and the Stoics by stating that we aren’t simply local citizens.  We’re all in this together (especially as the world is becoming more globalized).  We must transcend our “local origins and group memberships” and instead become “a citizen of the world.”  By ignoring other cultures, we will be lost not only on the competitive ground (which I’ve given a Zakarian twist to it), but we also lose our wisdom and our insight into these other ideas that we would lose if we never studied them.  Just by simply following what our culture says is again following the crowd.  It’s a simple authoritarian society instead of a democratic one.  It sets us up to double check to see why our actions are truly good actions or merely conventional.  Indeed, learning about other cultures is an essential part of life.

Next, she uses Hume and Adam Smith to give an account about how Narrative accounts can produce sympathy within us.  Knowledge is important, but morality also includes feelings.  Indeed, Smith points out that we lose wisdom without cultivating our moral sympathies.  This requires imagination, namely imagining what it would be like to be the other person.  Compassion tears down the walls of signifying the other as “other.”  The other is now part of “us.”  It makes us realize why people are feeling the way they are.  We see and understand why they are angry when an injustice happens even though that action didn’t happen directly to us.  Literature is the best way to cultivate empathy and sympathy.  With this, this helps us become a citizen of the world, a cosmopolitan rather than just identity politics.

After justifying why this reform education is necessary, she delves deeper into the applications of multiculturalism: Cultural Studies, African-American Studies, Women Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, and how religion applies to all of this.

I won’t go into the details here, but she basically states that those subjects should be taught in higher education they are necessarily to cultivate a democratic citizen.  She does, however, critique certain philosophers like Foucault and Derrida saying that their studies have gotten off track in terms of what it means to cultivate our humanity.  She specifies Allan Bloom and George Will specifically stating that they have misconstrued what a liberal education is all about.

Her ideas are practical, refreshing, and bold.  To give a specific account, part of my job is to make the students question their religion.  Of course, many people will see this as bad because it makes people to lose a connection to their community, to who they are, and perhaps society will be fragmented.  I disagree.  Questioning is helpful.  It forces people to now investigate instead of dogmatically living out their lives.  People who never question their beliefs will continually follow the crowd instead of doing it because they know it’s right.  It looks threatening on the surface, but if one digs deeper, one can see that it’s beneficial.  As Plato said, leaving the cave is painful.  Gaining wisdom is painful, but you’ll be better for it in the long run.  If you care about how education should be taught and one who delves into the culture wars, you should check this book out.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Book Review, Culture, Education, Respect, Stoicism, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: Cultivating Humanity by Martha C. Nussbaum

  1. Handsome Matt says:

    I think it’s vital to point the way back towards reconciliation. That is the process of answering the questions, and moving towards the answers.

    Questions are great so long as they encourage one to seek answers. Specifically the true answer to questions, whatever that might be. Otherwise, it would be best to never question.

    I value my liberal education because it encouraged me to seek answers, not to just question everything. Why break down a set of wrong beliefs if one isn’t going to then rebuild them correctly? That’s more dangerous than operating under said false beliefs.

    I do like the inclusion of morality and your inclusion of beliefs in the argument. Too often we neglect those other sides of our psyche at the expense of pure knowledge.

  2. shaunmiller says:

    Questions are great so long as they encourage one to seek answers.

    That is so true. I think what people get caught up in philosophy is that they always say, “well, there is no answer.” That’s not true. There is an answer, in fact, there are many answers. It’s just that perhaps this answer has more of an application than others. I think that’s what’s part of the culture wars is that one side believes that the other is just constantly questioning the other side without providing any answers. But it’s just the opposite. The Multi-studies program, for example, gives many answers and I think people don’t want to realize that what’s going on on the other side of the world is applicable to us. Seeking answers is part of the questioning. Sometimes we can’t find an answer, but that’s ok, the constant seeking is something that is valuable in itself. The questioning itself isn’t the problem, never finding the answer is. I like your clarification of this and it’s something that I definitely need to add to my philosophical repertoire.

    • Handsome Matt says:

      The same thing would come up in theology classes as well. People would give up searching for answers saying “God is too big.”

      Of course that’s true, and we aren’t going to find answers to everything, but the pursuit of knowledge is what’s important. We might never answer question A, but the questions and answers found along that journey are invaluable!

      Keep up the thought-provoking posts!

  3. shaunmiller says:

    Apparently, Nussbaum has another book that deals with the humanities nowadays and she’s making another appeal about how a democracy needs the humanities. It’s a sad situation where most schools are cutting the humanities programs out because of economic issues. The book is now on my wishlist, but you can see the book review here:

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