Commencement address by Martha C. Nussbaum

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(Note: These are prepared remarks by Martha C. Nussbaum, one of the world’s leading philosophers and a University of Chicago professor, for Colgate University’s 189th commencement, May 16, 2010)

Not For Profit: Liberal
Education and Democratic Citizenship

Interim President Roelofs, members of the faculty, trustees, alumni, family members and other guests, and above all, graduates. On this joyful day, we are here to celebrate a wonderful group of young people
who have achieved so much, graduating from one of the premier liberal arts universities in the United States, and who face exciting prospects for the future. The type of liberal education you have received,
however, 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, and their systems of education, 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 children. 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 level, which sends curricular and pedagogical signals to schools as well. We too, however, are in grave danger of going down the road toward a narrow profit-focused education. Increasingly, in news reports and op-eds, we read of a decline in the humanities, of programs in music, art, and theater pared away at the high school level, of humanities curricula being downsized at the college 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,(1) 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.


Martha C. Nussbaum delivers the commencement address. (Photo by Andy Daddio)


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.

Nor has a change of administration meant a change in policy. President Obama has so far focused on the same narrow set of goals. Indeed, he repeatedly praises nations of the Far East, for example Singapore, in an ominous manner: “They are spending less time teaching things that don’t matter, and more time teaching things that do. They are preparing their students not only for high school or college, but also for a career. We are not.” In other words, “things that matter” is taken to be equivalent to “things that prepare for a career.” A life of rich significance and respectful, attentive citizenship – prominently including critical thinking — is nowhere mentioned among the goals worth spending time on.

Why should we care? All of you have had a liberal education. The Colgate Core, which has been at the heart of the curriculum since 1928, is among the most ambitious general education programs in the country, focused on independent interdisciplinary thinking. But why? What difference would it really make if Colgate scrapped its liberal arts focus in favor of technological and pre-professional 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 I think you will appreciate more and more, as life goes on, the expansion of your mind and heart that your education here has made possible. I’ve so often met people in all walks of life – law, engineering, business – who feel that their ability to enjoy life, to think about other people and themselves, and to understand the world around them was decisively affected by the quality of their own undergraduate liberal arts education.

We could also talk about business, since leading business educators 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, and the importance of critical thinking in producing a business culture that is not simply a culture of yes-people. Even Singapore and China are now trying to imitate our liberal arts focus, for the sake of business, though without much success, given their intolerance of critical voices.

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, built into the structure of education at Colgate 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 counter-claims. 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. 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. And when argument, not mere partisan feeling, takes the lead, people will also be 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 will probe, investigate; they will learn where the other person’s argument shares common ground with their own; all this conduces to respect and understanding.

Critical thinking is woven throughout the Core at Colgate, which focuses on rigorous thinking and writing in all the required areas. It can also be further nourished by elective courses, in areas such as philosophy and political theory.

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. This your Core amply provides with its required study of both Western culture and a specific non-Western culture. History and the other social sciences provide key tools here, and they need to be taught, as they are in an excellent liberal arts college, with an emphasis on the independent thinking of the student, who learns to evaluate evidence, to think about the relationship between history and her own time, and to think critically about different accounts of concepts such as economic well-being and global development.

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. 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 perception, hope, 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 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 wait twenty years and this too may be a thing of the past. The Indian poet, philosopher, and educator Rabindranath Tagore, 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.(2)

In twenty years, the world may remember the sort of education you have received 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 observed, a suicide of the soul. What could be more frightening than that? In my study of the Indian state of Gujarat, which has for a particularly long time gone down this road, with no critical thinking or imagining in the public schools and a concerted focus on technical ability, one can see clearly how a band of docile technicians can be welded into a murderous force to enact the most horrendously racist and anti-democratic policies.

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 have had 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 Colgate strong; lobby with your state and national representatives for more attention to the humanities and the arts, which even President Obama seems bent on neglecting. 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 keep on pursuing the goals of that education in whatever you do in life: let today 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, and 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. If the real clash of civilizations is, as I believe, a clash within the individual soul, as greed and narcissism contend against respect and love, all modern societies are rapidly losing the battle, as they feed the forces that lead to violence and dehumanization and fail to feed the forces that lead to cultures of equality and respect. If we do not insist on the crucial importance of the humanities and the arts, they will drop away, because they don’t make money. They only do what is much more precious than that, make a world that is worth living in, people who are able to see other human beings as equals, and nations that are able to overcome fear and suspicion in favor of sympathetic and reasoned debate.

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