Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum
Nussbaum - Notforprofit

One of the main arguments of our era on behalf of public funding of education is the economic benefit it will produce. In the current 2016 Australian election, the Labor Party has argued its education spending policy will add up to 2.8% to growth. US President Barack Obama made a similar case a few years ago that ‘For every dollar we invest in these [education] programs, we get nearly ten dollars back’.

In ‘Not for Profit: Why democracy needs the humanities’, Martha Nussbaum argues this is a fundamentally impoverished view of the role education plays in the functioning of a democratic society. Instead she provides a compelling ‘manifesto’ for a larger role for humanities (arts, literature, world history, religious studies and economic history) in the education of democratic citizens.

Nussbaum worries that in many countries around the world, and increasingly in the West, a ‘teach to the test’ model of rote and repetition seems to be gaining control. Professional skills are the demand, and opportunities for play, curiosity and questioning authority are reduced. While a digital world does require specific skills in science, maths, and technology, I would agree with Nussbaum that such skills will not solve or even salve our contemporary problems unless accompanied by an education in philosophy, politics and history.

It’s easy to see why centre-left parties have however moved to argue for the economic benefits of their desire for higher education spending. They must feel this is sometimes the only safe ground on which they can defend anything anymore. But it’s a poor argument any way you look at it. The economic benefits are likely to be far less than claimed —especially if diverted into the ‘fads’ of the day— and because very few voters will thus conclude that the left are strong on the economy because of this argument.

This is a slightly strange book. The title suggests a much more post-captialist mumbo-jumbo style than it actually offers. And at times the argument could have been prosecuted much more strongly. While I agree with Nussbaum’s arguments on the need for empathy and imagination through teaching art and literature, the most invigorating part of this book for me was the focus on Socratic dialogue. Explored via the work and careers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, Rabindranath Tagore and John Dewy, Nussbaum argues that reasoning, debate and argumentation are foundational skills in the citizen body for a democracy to survive.

I’ve long admired the notions of civic republicanism with the emphasis on having citizens who are expected to participate in the decisions of a society, being both trained to engage, as well as having the responsibility to do so. This is a tradition which has been perhaps richest in the modern world in America —a self-proclaimed republic— and Australia.

Chief among its 20th century advocates is a man many have mistakenly seen as a one-sided liberal or conservative. Instead Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Robert Menzies was —as a colleague and I have argued — a civic republican at heart.

Menzies worried in his own day that if ‘‘our view of education is ‘how much can I get for myself out of it . . . in terms of financial advantage or social position’ that we shall see the material advancement of the nation matched by moral decay, and ultimately destroyed by it’’. Universities thus had the role and honour of training ‘‘the recognition of values which are other than pecuniary’’. (quotes from article)

Rather than treat education as economics policy —as many critics believe liberal capitalists must do— Menzies firm support for liberal capitalist economic measures to grow the economy provided him with the resources and space to fundamentally expand the university system in Australia and stress the importance of civic virtue.

Nussbaum has since provided an afterword to ‘Not for Profit’, written two years after the books’ initial 2010 release. In it she relates the global response to the book, and her travels since, including to places like Australia. While she is reassured that liberal arts courses remain vibrant in the USA, she worries that Australia is one of the weakest western states for this style of teaching. Not just because of the funding issues, but more fundamentally due to culture:

“Australia, like Britian, has long thought of education as commercial and instrumental, and there is a further issue in that profoundly egalitarian society: people have grown used to thinking of the humanities as elitist” (p.153)

Returning to a democratic citizenship model — with a commitment to equality and the questioning of authority — is thus a move Nussbaum feels may have a fundamental appeal in Australian society. Indeed we already know it does, given the long and proud history of civic republicanism in this country.

It would be tempting therefore to conclude with another kick at our politicians for their misguided notions. But ultimately, the education and democratic training of a nation is far more reflective of the community than its leaders. So rather than bemoan today’s small politics which is a consequence of a shrinking notion of democratic citizenship, let me pledge here to encourage its return wherever I can.

In my own behaviour in the public space, in the behaviour I encourage to my classes on Australian foreign and defence policy at University and over the coming years in the behaviour I teach my son. A commitment from us all to do so, would truly be to our national profit.

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