Worth reading : « Note for profit ». A book written by Martha C. Nussbaum

Le 30 juillet 2010


Let me present you a book worth reading :Note for profit. Why democracy needs the humanities [1], written by Martha C. Nussbaum. She is a professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, distinguished by the Ernst Freund Service. She wrote about twenty books, including “Hiding from Humanity : Digest, Shame and the law” [2]. One of her books has been translated into French : “Femmes et développement humain. L’approche des capabilités” [3].

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book because it is easy to read, even for someone who is not fluent in English. The content of the book can also be used to initiate a debate about the current reform of universities in France, and more widely in Europe. Firstly, the process of Bologna tends to standardize, among other things, the bachelor’s degree, masters and doctorate. Secondly, the crisis of education in the world. As the author explains, this crisis is more important than the economic crisis, which began in 2008. In her introduction, she refers to the crisis of education as “the silent crisis” (p. 1). Nowadays the university system is focused on efficiency, profitability and lower cost. In fact, the deeper purposes of liberal education go well beyond personal advancement in national competitiveness. This is the education for the economy, unfortunately not for democracy. Actually, the number of students of liberal arts in USA or literature in Europe has dropped. And I think this will continue. Western governments only propose scientific education (such as computer science, physics, chemistry, etc). Unfortunately, they forget “humanities” as defined by Martha C. Nussbaum. She does not like this fast-food model of education.

- ..... 1.- Being an educated citizen requires learning responsibility. Martha C. Nussbaum wrote “Educate is for people” (p.27). By saying that, she means that one should find a balance between moral emotions and anti-moral emotions. She used the basic term of « humanities » including geography, philosophy, literature, theology, law, etc (social sciences) in contrast with the “exact sciences” (computer science, physics, etc). The idea of “humanities” is old and uncommon in French. But in the other French speaking countries such as Belgium or Quebec, it is more popular. It can be translated by the Latin expression “studia humanitatis” (as taught by Erasmus, Thomas More, and Guillaume Budé).

..... A) Martha C. Nussbaum is convinced that “humanities” should be taught to students. She gives the example of two men who had a real impact on educational methods throughout the world. The first is Tagore (1861-1941), an Indian Bengali polymath. He was a writer, a composer and a dramatist, a painter and a philosopher. Tagore (also known as Visva Barati) was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, for the book “Gitanjaly”. When denouncing the British Raj and supporting the independence with Gandhi, another Indian celebrity, Tagore founded an alternative university which still exists under the name of Visva-Barati University. He implemented music and arts as the best educational methods for personal guidance : simplicity, harmony and immediate relationships are developed between professors and students, working all together. Martha C. Nussbaum calls Tagore’s method the “interior eyes of imagination”. The second man is Dewey (1859-1952), an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer. His ideas on education and social reform have had a lot of influence in the USA and in the world. Influenced by Hegel and Darwin, he advocated an educational structure that strikes a “balance” between delivering knowledge, and taking into account the interests and experiences of the student. He taught “hands-on learning” or experimental education. The teacher is not in the school to impose ideas or to give habits to the child. He is just a member of the community who selects the influences which should affect the child, and helps him to properly respond to these influences.

..... B) Martha C. Nussbaum rejects the way universities are currently organized. For example, the courses where the students do not participate and have a passive attitude. She rejects multiple choices as a form of evaluation. The students have to select the best possible answer from a list. Multiple choices are frequently used in educational testing and market research. In the USA, they are particularly popular in primary schools. Martha C. Nussbaum also rejects courses by video conference. Europe universities are facing the same problem. There are a lot of arguments in favor of multiple choices and video conferences, but the most important is financial. Martha C. Nussbaum suggests another system based on the Socratic Method (p.47). In this method, the professor uses irony and dialectic. He pretends to be ignorant but he asks questions to the students and often interrupts them, in order to help them find the right questions in opposition to bad opinions. The Socrates method practices “maieutics” : teaching through a series of questions to reveal to the interlocutors their own ignorance. Professors do not have to transmit wealth knowledge, but they must teach students consciousness-raising : to be able to argue ; to resile or to cop it sweet ; to understand the capacity of neighbors.

- ..... 2. - Martha C. Nussbaum critics do not concern all American universities. The US system of education does not only look for economic expansion. Contrary to European students, American students learn Humanities during the 2 first years of their courses

..... A) This was the general conclusion of a recent report by the spelling commission about the future of higher education, especially in Europe. The Lisbon criteria put in place in Europe as from 2001 focus on the “knowledge economy”. The title is self-explanatory. This is a worrying observation for the European university system which, on the one hand only promotes technical knowledge, and on the other hand is a victim of budget deficit. Martha C. Nussbaum reminds that strong economy is not an end in itself but should only be at the service of human purposes. The purpose is to promote the education of democratic, informed, independent citizens, capable of empathy. Martha C. Nussbaum suggests going back to the basic literacy and numeracy skills. She notes that, if some people have basic skills, other people have more specific skills. Both groups are linked by the basic skills, contrary to what happens in India. In that country, rural people remain very poor, illiterate and deprived of I.T. resources, while the country’s economy is growing considerably. This situation is not new, and started with Nehru at the end of the 1940’s. Martha C. Nussbaum suggests taking into account criteria such as cultural and educational development when calculating the PIB of a country. The problem is that encouraging people to thinking and giving them the freedom of thinking can be dangerous for a country that wants its citizens to be docile. As the slogan says : “no elite, no worry”. Manipulating people, but not considering them. In the same way, the knowledge education works again the presence of Humanities and Arts in the basic education.

..... B) However, Martha C. Nussbaum is still campaigning. The capacity of imagination is the keystone of a sane corporate culture. Innovation needs flexible, open and creative minds, and this is provided by literature and the arts. Art, music, theatre and literature are said to be costly. And we cannot deny that the publicity given to the underlying economic crisis since 2008 makes it worse. But the financial cost of such education is compensated by personal investment and the reduction of anomy. Paradoxically, students are less ignorant today than yesterday. They move in a globalized and open space, enjoy more and more intercommunity’s relationships and experiment the positive aspects of migration (economic, politics and social such as mixed marriage or Exchange University). They are global students. But they don’t always understand the meaning of the words they pronounce and the values they profess. The result is debates on their identity and search for their multiple and unique personality.

Right, I think that is all. Let me finish by thanking you for your attention. I hope that I have convinced you to read this book. This book is thought-provoking for learning, but it also raises general questions about our world and the survival of our democracy. Democracy goes beyond active, reflective and empathic “citizens of world” (p.79). Martha C. Nussbaum, we should enjoy democracy and cherish our liberty. Do not forget it ! This book is a call for Liberty.


Have a good reading and a beautiful summer.


Notes :

[1] Princeton University Press, 2010, 158 p.

[2] Ed. Princeton, 2006, 432 p.

[3] Translated by C. Chaplain, Ed. Des femmes, coll. Essai, 2008, 400 p.

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