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Liberal education and democratic citizenship

By Martha Nussbaum

The humanities and the arts, the core of our idea of ‘liberal arts education’, are being downsized and downgraded.

Seen as 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 emphasising useful, highly applied skills, suited to short-term profit-making.

Danger of arts and humanities withering away

Increasingly, in news reports and ‘op-eds’, we read of a decline in the humanities, of programmes in music, art and theatre 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 US, released in 2006 by the US Department of Education under the leadership of Bush Administration Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Called A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of US 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.

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 favour of more useful disciplines.

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.”1 In other words, “things that matter” are taken to be equivalent to “things that prepare [one] 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? 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. 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.

Liberal education enhances the capacity for critical examination But I want to talk today about the role of liberal education in producing the sort of citizen who can keep democracy alive and realise its promise. Three capacities, above all, are essential to the survival and progress of democracy in today’s complicated world. 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.

Our American democracy 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.

Democracy enables our ability to recognise our common humanity

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 realised 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. 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.

Citizens also need narrative imagination

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,1 calls “splitting”: that is, we can live lives rich in empathy with our own group, recognising 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”1 on which American culture could “negotiate the snags and whirlpools” that stand between us and our democratic ideal. 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 arts – and our humanness being slashed away

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. Today, in elementary and high schools all over America, literature and the arts are being slashed away. 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 20 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.1

In 20 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 criticise 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.

Students must spread the word

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 favour 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.


1. Available at:

2. US President Barack Obama made the comments in a speech delivered to the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in early 2011. The full transcript of the speech is available at

3. Lifton, R.J. (2000) The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic Books.

4. Ellison, R. (1995) The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. New York: Modern Library.

5. Tagore, R. (1917) Nationalism in the West. Atlantic Monthly, March 1917, p. 291.

Category: Winter 2012

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