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Book Review: Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

Book Review: Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

Nussbaum, Martha Craven. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.


As a student of the liberal arts and a history and religious studies major, I am highly sympathetic to Martha Nussbaum's argument for the relevance of the humanities in a democratic society. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities reads like a carefully constructed treatise, with each chapter providing an increasingly larger argument about not just the state of democracy in America, but what is at stake for democracy worldwide.  Although not without faults, Nussbaum's argument provides a highly compelling argument for why democracy needs, and has always needed the humanities. In chapter 1, Nussbaum identifies the “Silent Crisis” happening worldwide in education, that “the humanistic aspects of science and social science - the imaginative, creative, aspect and the aspects of critical thought - are losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited for profit making” (2). Nussbaum then proceeds by addressing some key issues in this debate, including the difference between education for profit and education for democracy, the importance of argument, moral and “anti-moral” emotions, her conception of what makes “citizens of the world,” and the importance of cultivating imagination before concluding with her reflections on hope democratic education is “on the ropes.”

Overall, Nussbaum provides an enlivening argument for why the prioritization of technical fields and simultaneous devaluation of the humanities is bad for democracy. Particularly, her argument about the necessity of the arts in cultivating imagination resonates strongly through her discussion of the Chicago Childrens Choir and Morton Alternative High School, because it shows how the arts can provide outlets and spaces for issues like race, gender, and identity formation to be worked through (112-120). The result of these spaces is that young people are able to discuss issues that will be of great importance to shaping not only who they are, but what kind of community their generation will create and promote in society. Technical training lacks these spaces, and only focuses on the productive side of America, meaning that people are taught to be good producers but not individuals who will be as able to handle more difficult issues in society. The largest flaw I identify with her argument is the lack of critique she has for the liberal arts in America, which she uses as the exemplary form of education in the world. While I would agree that the American liberal arts tradition promotes much of what she is saying, in reality many liberal arts institutions in America are feeling this same pressure to focus on the sciences as many large universities. In her conclusion, Nussbaum does provide suggestions for what this should mean for the structure of higher education, although I would want to question her further to push deeper into what that could mean for American education and what specific reforms she thinks could provide this. Nussbaum concludes with a sentiment that would pull on the heartstrings of anyone who finds agreement with her argument, and one I do think those of us invested in the role of the humanities in public life need to keep in mind: “If the real clash of civilizations is, as I believe, a clash within the individual soul, as greed and narcissism contend against respect and love, all modern societies are rapidly losing the battle, as they feed the forces that lead to violence and dehumanization and fail to feed the forces that lead to cultures of equality and respect. If we do not insist on the crucial importance of the humanities and the arts, they will drop away, because they do not make money. They only do what is much more precious than that, make a world that is worth living in, people who are able to see other human beings as full people, with thoughts and feelings of their own that deserve respect and empathy, and nations that are able to overcome fear and suspicion in favor or sympathetic and reasoned debate" (143).


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