Commencement Address: Martha Craven Nussbaum

Sunday, May 22, 2011 - 13:52

Not For Profit: Liberal Education and Democratic Citizenship

President Pasquerella, members of the faculty, trustees, alumnae, family members and other guests, and, above all, graduates:

On this joyful day, we are here to celebrate a college with a unique history and distinctive values. Founded in 1837, almost a century before women won the right to vote, Mount Holyoke has been educating female leaders for almost 175 years. Founder Mary Lyon’s famous statement, “Go where no one else will go, do what no one else will do,” has been borne out by the wide range of distinguished careers that Mount Holyoke alumnae have created for themselves in so many fields. A school in Afghanistan, a community health program in Zimbabwe, a film program for teenage girls in Seattle--these are just a few of the places where Mount Holyoke women are changing the world by bringing a concept of global citizenship nourished by Mount Holyoke’s abiding commitment to liberal arts education, an education that prepares not only for a career, but for life and citizenship. It’s that type of education that is my theme today. For the type of liberal education for which Mount Holyoke stands is under assault all over the world in our time of economic anxiety, as all nations compete to keep or increase their share in the global market. All over the world, radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach both children and young adults, and these changes have not been well considered. Thirsty for economic gain, nations are heedlessly discarding forms of learning that are crucial to the health of democracy.

What are these radical changes? The humanities and the arts, the core of our idea of “liberal arts education,” are being downsized and downgraded. Seen 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 in the minds and hearts of parents and young adults. Indeed, what we might call the humanistic aspect 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 emphasizing useful, highly applied skills, suited to short-term profit making.

The U.S. has resisted these changes better than many nations, thanks to our time-honored tradition of liberal education at the college-university level, which sends curricular and pedagogical signals to schools as well. We too, however, are in grave danger of taking the road toward a narrow profit-focused education--without having really deliberated and decided. Increasingly, we hear of drastic cuts in the humanities at the college level, of programs in both arts and humanities being pared away at the high school level.

Consider, too, the Spellings Report on the state of higher education in the U.S., released in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Education under the leadership of Bush administration Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Called A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education,* this report contained a valuable critique of unequal access to higher education. When it came to subject matter, however, it focused entirely on education for national economic gain. It concerned itself with perceived deficiencies in science, technology, and engineering--not even basic scientific research in these areas, but only highly applied learning, learning that can quickly generate profit-making strategies. The humanities, the arts, and critical thinking, so important for decent global citizenship, were basically absent. By omitting them, the report strongly suggested that it would be perfectly all right if these abilities were allowed to wither away, in favor of more useful disciplines. It is not clear that a change of administration has signaled a change in policy. The Obama administration has sent some mixed signals, but the emphasis is similar: a praise of the technical, a neglect of the very type of liberal education that the president was fortunate to receive.

Why should we care? What difference would it really make if Mount Holyoke scrapped its liberal arts focus in favor of technological and preprofessional studies?

We could go in a number of directions from here, since a liberal arts education does many things. First, it is a preparation for life, and people typically appreciate more and more, as life goes on, the expansion of their minds and hearts that an education rich in humanities makes possible. Indeed, according to a recent New York Times study, one area where the humanities are on the rise is continuing adult education, since people in all walks of life--law, engineering, business--feel that their ability to enjoy life, to think about other people and themselves, and to understand the world around them is enhanced by the liberal arts.

We could also talk about business, since leading business educators in the U.S. have recently been placing great emphasis on the need for liberal arts education as a part of what keeps our business culture healthy and dynamic. They stress particularly the importance of the humanities in developing the imagination, so important in a mobile economy, where we need innovation, and people cannot get by with a set of skills learned by rote--and the importance of critical thinking in producing a business culture that is not simply a culture of yes-people. It’s particularly striking that even Singapore and China are now trying to imitate our liberal arts focus, with sweeping reforms to add more critical thinking and more development of imagination to their curricula, and all of that is for the sake of healthy business cultures, rich in innovation. (Their experiments seem unlikely to bear fruit, given their intolerance of critical voices, and their unwillingness to tolerate debate about fundamental social and political issues.)

But I want to talk today about the role of liberal education in producing democratic citizens, the sort of citizen who can keep democracy alive and realize its promise. So: what does a liberal education that contains a substantial contribution from the humanities and the arts contribute to the health of democracy?

Three capacities, above all, are essential to the survival and progress of democracy in today’s complicated world. All, I believe, are built into the structure of education at Mount Holyoke and other similar liberal arts colleges. First is the capacity for critical examination of oneself and one's traditions--for living what, following Socrates, we may call "the examined life." This means a life that accepts no belief as authoritative simply because it has been handed down by tradition or become familiar through habit, a life that questions all beliefs and accepts only those that survive reason's demand for consistency and for justification. Training this capacity requires developing the capacity to reason logically, to test what one reads or says for consistency of reasoning, correctness of fact, and accuracy of judgment. Testing of this sort frequently produces challenges to tradition, as Socrates knew well when he defended himself against the charge of "corrupting the young." But he defended his activity on the grounds that democracy needs citizens who can think for themselves rather than simply deferring to authority, who can reason together about their choices rather than just trading claims and counterclaims. Like a gadfly on the back of a noble but sluggish horse, he said, he was waking democracy up so that it could conduct its business in a more reflective and reasonable way.

Our American democracy, like ancient Athens, is prone to hasty and sloppy reasoning, and to the substitution of invective for real deliberation. With the decline in newspapers and the increasing influence of an impoverished talk-radio culture of sound bites, we need Socrates in the classroom more urgently than ever. More generally, psychological research has shown that all human beings have an alarming tendency to defer to authority and to peer pressure. Critical argument gives people a way of being responsible: when politicians bring simplistic rhetoric their way, they won’t just accept it or reject it on the basis of a prior ideological commitment, they will investigate and argue, thinking for themselves, and learning to understand themselves. This is important if bad policies and false claims are to be unmasked. And when argument, not mere partisan feeling, takes the lead, people become able to interact with one another in a more reasonable way. Instead of seeing political disputes as occasions to score points for their own side, they are more likely to probe, investigate; they learn where the other person’s argument shares common ground with their own; all this conduces to respect and understanding. It is understatement to say that we urgently need these abilities in today’s political culture.

Critical thinking is woven throughout liberal arts instruction at Mount Holyoke, with its focus on rigorous thinking and writing, and its much-praised intensive classroom experience. In addition, the high quality of your philosophy department guarantees that there is good guidance and leadership for these efforts and plenty of courses for students who want to pursue rigorous analysis of arguments further, in thinking more deeply about ethical problems, the nature of the mind, or the ethical responsibilities of science.

Responsible democratic citizens who cultivate their humanity need, further, an ability to see themselves as not simply citizens of some local region or group but also, and above all, as human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern. As citizens within each nation we are frequently called upon to make decisions that require some understanding of racial and ethnic and religious groups in that nation, and of the situation of its women and its sexual minorities. We also need to understand how issues such as agriculture, human rights, climate change, business and industry, and, of course, violence and terrorism, are generating discussions that bring people together from many different nations. This must happen more and more, if effective solutions to pressing human problems are to be found. But these connections often take, today, a very thin form: the global market, which sees human lives as instruments for gain. If institutions of higher education do not build a richer network of human connections, it is likely that our dealings with one another will be mediated by the impoverished norms of market exchange and profit making. And these impoverished norms do not help, to put it mildly, if what we want is a world of peace, where people will be able to live fruitful cooperative lives.

Becoming good citizens in a complex, interlocking world involves understanding the ways in which common needs and aims are differently realized in different circumstances. This requires a great deal of knowledge that American college students rarely got in previous eras: knowledge of non-Western cultures, and also of minorities within their own, of differences of gender and sexuality. There are many areas of your curriculum where this type of global understanding is cultivated: history, economics, the study of foreign languages. But one distinctive feature of your campus must also be mentioned: the large proportion--20 percent--of international students you enroll, coming from 70 countries; and the equally impressive proportion of ethnic and racial minorities--28 percent. Curricular instruction is far more effective when the daily experience of students brings them into conversation with people from other parts of their nation and the world. And finally, your McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives is a source for many creative approaches to learning about global issues.

But citizens cannot think well on the basis of factual knowledge alone. The third ability of the citizen, closely related to the first two, can be called the narrative imagination. We all are born with a basic capacity to see the world from another person’s point of view. That capacity, which we share with a number of other animal species, is a part of our biological heritage. Psychologist Paul Bloom of Yale has shown that it is present in infants even during the first year of life. This capacity, however, needs development, and it particularly needs development in areas in which our society has created sharp separations between groups. We know that human beings are all too capable of what psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, in his powerful book The Nazi Doctors, calls “splitting”: that is, we can live lives rich in empathy with our own group, recognizing the humanity of its members, while denying humanity to other groups and people. Good citizenship requires that we challenge our imaginative capacity, learning what the world looks like from the point of view of groups we typically try not to see. Ralph Ellison, in a later essay about his great novel Invisible Man, wrote that a novel such as his could be "a raft of hope, perception, and entertainment" on which American culture could "negotiate the snags and whirlpools" that stand between us and our democratic ideal. His novel, of course, takes the "inner eyes" of the white reader as its theme and its target. The hero is invisible to white society, but he tells us that this invisibility is an imaginative and educational failing on their part, not a biological accident on his. This ability is cultivated, above all, by courses in the arts and humanities. And I think it is in some ways the most essential of all, if we are to work toward a world in which we see distant lives as spacious and deep, rather than simply as occasions for enrichment.

The imagination of humanness, we might call it. And this ability is cultivated not only by the study of literature, but also by music, fine arts, dance, and the other creative arts--a reason why I am so impressed with the range and quality of art-related courses--and full majors and minors--available in your curriculum.

Today, in elementary and high schools all over America, literature and the arts are being slashed away, since they look like useless frills that don’t help America make money. All too few colleges and universities send the strong signal of respect for them that your own does, and many are even downsizing or eliminating the arts themselves. Literature is still hanging in there, because of its core role in many general education curricula, but this too may be a thing of the past, if we don’t articulate the rationale for this study as an essential part of general education for all students. The Indian poet, philosopher, and educator Rabindranath Tagore, whose 150th birthday we are celebrating this month, builder of an experimental school and a liberal arts university, observed already in 1917 that the demands of the global economy threatened the eclipse of abilities that were crucial for a world of justice and peace:

[H]istory has come to a stage when the moral man, the complete man, is more and more giving way, almost without knowing it, to make room for the … commercial man, the man of limited purpose. This process, aided by the wonderful progress in science, is assuming gigantic proportion and power, causing the upset of man's moral balance, obscuring his human side under the shadow of soul-less organization.**

In 50 years, the world may remember the sort of education Mount Holyoke provides as a distant memory. If that is the way the future unfolds, the world will be a scary place to live in. What will we have, if these trends continue? Nations of technically trained people who don't know how to criticize authority, useful profit makers with obtuse imaginations. As Tagore put it, a suicide of the soul. What could be more frightening than that?

But the future does not have to unfold this way. It is in our hands, and, especially, in the hands of all of you, who are giving and receiving this sort of education--you know its value, and will come to know it more as the years go on. What you can do is to keep institutions like Mount Holyoke strong. You can also lobby with your local school board, and with your state and national representatives, for more attention to the humanities and the arts. Above all, just talk a lot about what matters to you. Spread the word that what happens on this campus is not useless, but crucially relevant to the future of democracy in the nation and the world. And those of you who are students can begin right now to think of ways to keep on pursuing the goals of that education in whatever you do in life: Graduation should be not the end of a liberal arts education, but merely the beginning.

Democracies have great rational and imaginative powers. They also are prone to some serious flaws in reasoning, to parochialism, haste, sloppiness, selfishness. Education based mainly on profitability in the global market magnifies these deficiencies, producing a greedy obtuseness and a technically trained docility that threaten the very life of democracy itself, and that certainly impede the creation of a decent world culture, people who are able to see other human beings as equals, and nations that can overcome fear and suspicion in favor of sympathetic and reasoned debate.

Congratulations. May you live joyful and productive lives in our complicated world, taking your education with you and fighting to keep it alive for others.

(Note: This printed text may vary from the speech delivered.)

 * A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education, available online. A valuable counter-report is College Learning for the New Global Century, issued by the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP), a group organized by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (Washington, D. C., 2007), with whose recommendations I am largely in agreement (not surprisingly, in that I participated in drafting it).

** Tagore, Nationalism, 1917.