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Not for profit: why education needs the humanities

By Martha Nussbaum - posted Monday, 15 August 2011

We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance. The broad humanistic vision is under threat from a retrenchment in the humanities at all levels.

Today, radical changes are occurring everywhere in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Eager for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive.

If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person's sufferings and achievements.


What are these radical changes?

The humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers as useless frills, at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children.

Indeed, what we might call the humanistic aspects of science and social science – the imaginative, creative aspect, and the aspect of rigorous critical thought – are also losing ground, as nations prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of useful, highly applied skills, suited to profit-making.

Given that economic growth is so eagerly sought by all nations, too few questions have been posed, in both developed and developing nations, about the direction of education, and, with it, of democratic society.

With the rush to profitability in the global market, non-technical abilities are at risk of getting lost: abilities crucial to the health of any democracy internally, and to the creation of a decent world culture and a robust type of global citizenship, capable of constructively addressing the world's most pressing problems.

These abilities are associated with the humanities and the arts: the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a "citizen of the world"; and the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.


To think about education for democratic citizenship we have to think, first, about what democratic nations are, and what they strive for. What does it mean, then, for a nation to advance? On one view, it means to increase its Gross National Product per capita.

Never mind about distribution and social equality, never mind about the preconditions of stable democracy, never mind about the quality of race and gender relations, never mind about the improvement of other aspects of a human being's quality of life such as health and education.

One sign of what this model leaves out is the fact that South Africa under apartheid used to shoot to the top of development indices. There was a lot of wealth in the old South Africa, and the old model of development rewarded that achievement (or good fortune), ignoring the staggering distributional inequalities, the brutal apartheid regime, and the health and educational deficiencies that went with it.

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This article is an edited extract of the 2011 Hal Wootten lecture given by Professor Nussbaum at the University of New South Wales on August 11, 2011. 

You can read an extended report of the speech with more extracts from Tracey Gobey at Ambit Gambit.

You can download the speech from here.

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About the Author

Martha C. Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago Law School.

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