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Poor education, poor democracy

Guest Blogger

Worried about our cultural – and economic – decline? Take a look at the thrust of our educational system, says Martha C. Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. In “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities,” recently released by Princeton University Press, Nussbaum argues that our nation suffers because the goal of our educational programs is to teach students how make money rather than how to think critically as knowledgeable and empathetic citizens. Focusing on profitable skills rather than the humanities has weakened literacy, factual knowledge, artistic sensibility and the regard for humanity itself, Nussbaum contends. Here, she explains how educational myopia weakens our democracy.

By Martha C. Nussbaum

Where is education headed in our country? This is no trivial question. Democracy stands or falls with its people and their habits of mind, and education produces those habits of mind. Nonetheless, we are seeing radical changes in both pedagogy and curricular content, and these changes have not been well thought through. Eager for economic growth, our nation, like many others, has begun to think of education in narrowly instrumental terms, as a set of useful skills that can generate short-term profit for industry. What is getting lost in the competitive flurry is the future of democracy.

As Socrates knew long ago, any democracy is a “noble but sluggish horse.” It needs lively watchful thought to keep it awake. This means that citizens need to cultivate the skill for which Socrates lost his life: the ability to criticize tradition and authority, to keep examining self and other, to accept no speech or proposal until one has tested it with one’s very own reasoning. By now psychological research confirms Socrates’ diagnosis: people have an alarming capacity to defer to authority and to peer pressure. Democracy can’t survive if we don’t limit these baneful tendencies, cultivating habits of inquisitive and critical thought.

Citizens also need historical knowledge, the basics of the major world religions, and how the global economy works. This historical teaching needs to include a Socratic element: students need to learn to evaluate evidence, to think for themselves about the different ways in which it can be put together, and brought to bear on current reality. (Imagine a jury system in which people have not learned such skills.)

Finally, they need to be able to imagine how the world looks to someone in a position very different from their own. That may sounds very “squishy,” but it too lies at the heart of our system of justice, which asks jurors to imagine what a “reasonable person” would think and feel in a wide range of situations. It also lies at the heart of good relations among citizens who differ by race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation: instead of seeing different people as “other,” and, all too often, as mere “things,” democracy requires us to learn to see those others as fully equal human beings, with aims and purposes of their own.

How do people learn that? We all come into the world with a rudimentary capacity for “positional thinking,” thinking from another’s viewpoint, but it typically operates narrowly, in the sphere of the familiar, and it needs deliberate cultivation -- through literature and the arts, taught along with a historical dialogue that is critical in the Socratic fashion.

And yet, all over the world, the humanities, the arts, and even history are being cut away to make room for profit-making skills. When such changes are made, business itself suffers, because healthy business cultures need creativity and critical thinking, as leading business educators have long stressed. Even were this not true, however, the liberal arts are essential for the type of government we have chosen and for the type of America we have long aspired to be.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  August 13, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: American education; failures of american education;  
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Education and democracy go hand in hand. I just read an electrifying little e-novel called "The Lincoln Conversations" by L. Paul Brehm. One of the many things Brehm does so well in his book is show the different conclusions reached by a mature mind nourished for decades on movies and televisions, and a young mind nourished on reading and history.
Faced with a serious moral crisis in his family the narrator, Douglas, a successful Philadelphia businessman, faces it armed intellectually with everything from Mickey Mouse to the kind of Western heroism found in High Noon. His son faces the same crisis armed with a more solid education. No big surprise which one is still standing in Main Line at the end of the story. I picked it up on amazon. If you have a free hour or two, it is well worth the effort.

Posted by: LarryMac3 | August 13, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

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