The University of Chicago Magazine

December 1997

Reform was in the air when Martha C. Nussbaum arrived at Harvard University in 1969 as a graduate student in classical philology. Subjects never before considered worthy of study-African-American culture, women's history, gay sexuality-were starting to be regarded, at least by some, as significant areas of research. During the 1970s and 1980s-as Nussbaum completed her Ph.D., began teaching at Harvard, then became a professor at Brown University-new programs in these fields began cropping up at universities across the country.

These days such departments are commonplace, but may be only grudgingly accepted. Standards of scholarship have been lowered, traditionalists feel, in politically motivated efforts to promote certain identities. Not only that, they say, but students are receiving lesser educations because the canon of Western civilization is being neglected in the classroom.

Those who favor the new curriculum have been equally vocal, but Nussbaum, the Law School's Ernst Freund professor of law and ethics, sometimes found their arguments more passionate than rational. A strong proponent of both the classic texts and the recent additions to the academy, Nussbaum decided to use her classical training to defend studies of ethnicity, race, non-Western cultures, gender, and sexuality. She makes her case in a new book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Harvard University Press).

A philosopher in the Socratic tradition, Nussbaum who also holds appointments in the Divinity School, the philosophy and classics departments, and the College-firmly believes in the examined life, dissecting and criticizing the arguments on both sides. She calls her book "a busman's holiday," and its origins lie in her scathing 1987 critique of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, written for The New York Review of Books.

Nussbaum, whose current courses include "Aristotle and Kant on Virtue," "Feminist Philosophy," and "Foucault and the Law," finds fault with traditionalists like Bloom for defending the classics without paying attention to the lessons of the classics. "I keep hearing all these folks invoke the classics in connection with the Great Books curriculum," she says, "but I'm well aware that if you look at these philosophers themselves, and ask what they have to say about education, they were very skeptical of curricula based on a list of books."

At the same time, Nussbaum disapproves of defending changes in the academy on the basis of identity politics. "There are some people who say that the reason we should have African-American studies is so that African-American students will have an affirmation of their own identity," she says, just as some defend women's studies because they give women self-esteem.

"I don't dismiss that, because we have to understand how exclusions of people, and exclusions of domains of scholarship, did go hand in hand in the old academy," Nussbaum explains. "But in the end, it's necessary to point out that these are studies that all citizens need to have in order to be complete citizens. That's a far stronger defense."

Nussbaum sees education's primary role as preparing citizens for a democracy, and she begins her book by establishing three core values of a liberal education: critical self-examination, the ideal of a world citizen, and the development of the narrative imagination. Nussbaum starts with Socrates' call to live the examined life, advocating a close scrutiny of cultural traditions. A truly Socratic education, she writes, should be "suited to the pupil's circumstances and context" and "concerned with a variety of different norms and traditions."

After Socrates, she draws upon the Stoics and their philosophy of the "citizen of the world," which holds that self-knowledge is enhanced by knowledge of others and that problems are better solved "if we face them in this broader context, our imaginations unconstrained by narrow partisanship."

The idea of world citizenship will be particularly relevant for the 21st century, Nussbaum notes. "I think it's morally good to learn about others and to understand where they're coming from," she says. "But even if you don't like that idea, you have to do it, because even just trying to think about how business works in the present-day world, you have to know something about what people in other cultures are like."

Nussbaum illustrates her discussion of narrative imagination, "the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself," by reminding readers how the Greek tragedies allowed male citizens to identify with the women characters, showing them the shared humanity of the sexes as well as the different social opportunities and consequences they faced. "So far from being 'great books' without a political agenda," Nussbaum writes, "these dramas were directly pertinent to democratic debates about the treatment of captured peoples in wartime."

Having argued that the precepts set down by what many consider the greats of Western thought actually encourage the reform taking place in higher education, Nussbaum then takes the second half of her book to depict how that reform is being enacted.

To document how the new education is being carried out in classrooms across the country, Nussbaum-with the help of research assistants from Brown and local campus contacts-closely surveyed more than a dozen U.S. institutions, ranging from Brigham Young University to Morehouse College, from Bentley College to the University of California, Riverside. After many hours of interviews and observation, Nussbaum concluded that, on the whole, humanities faculties are neither making their students "into little Roman gentlemen; nor are they seeking to turn them into clones of the radicals of the 1960s. Instead, they are seeking to elicit from them the best in citizenship and understanding that they can achieve, starting from where they are."

Nussbaum also found that some schools fail to integrate new areas of study with the traditional ones, leaving students to choose almost at random to fulfill, say, a non-Western culture requirement. The more comprehensive, interdisciplinary approaches, she says, work better.

She hesitates to list a prescribed set of courses, believing instead that schools must design curricula based on an institution's individual circumstances. The philosopher is, however, "prepared to go the mat" for a philosophy requirement. "What a philosophy requirement does is teach people what it's like to argue with people who disagree," Nussbaum says. "This is such a fundamental part of citizenship."

Nussbaum wrote Cultivating Humanity with the aim of reaching out to a range of citizens, including parents and legislators, who disagree with her views, at least as they start the book. Many people see academics as "a narrow and irresponsible elite who are monolithically radical in their political ideology," she says. "That's not an accurate picture, and it's pretty important to present an accurate picture, because what happens when people believe that story is not that they'll say, 'Let's do the humanities the way that Bloom wants.' More likely they're just going to cut funding for the university altogether, or they're going to shift over to vocational education."

In addition to defending humanities scholarship, Nussbaum is hard at work on some of her own. A prolific author, she has another new book-Sex and Social Justice, a collection of previously published, but rewritten, essays-in the queue at Oxford University Press. She's also working on turning the Gifford Lectures that she gave at the University of Edinburgh in 1993 into a book on the relationship between emotion and belief and the development of the emotions. Her dialogue, "Emotions as Judgments of Value," just won an international competition sponsored by the European Humanities Research Centre in Oxford. Finally, she is preparing to present the Seeley Lectures at Cambridge University in spring, addressing the topic of feminist internationalism. Nussbaum intends to argue for framing a discussion of women's quality of life in terms of a "neo-Aristotelian notion of human flourishing," once again using classical theories to examine contemporary life.-K.S.


Also in Investigations:

Frosting on the Cake - Rings around Physics - Citations

Table of Contents - Top of Page - Email Us