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No. 12, September 1999

Liberals on liberal education

Gianfrancesco Zanetti on Martha Craven Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity. A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997)


No. 13 - Dec 2000 (PDF)

No. 12 - Sep 1999

No. 11 - May 1998

No. 10 - Jun 1997

Martha Craven Nussbaum’s book is built on two distinct but interconnected lines of argument. Her starting points are her conception of what citizenship means, drawing normative consequences from an argument constructed on the basis of this idea, in the form of specific educational proposals. At the same time, using an empirical approach, she starts from the concrete life of American colleges and universities, from the curricula as well as the experience and aspirations of students and staff, to reach a positive evaluation of that Reform in Liberal Education that has dared to recognize the importance of the subject of "diversity" these last few years. So in the first place the book has all the fascination of an almost militant commitment: she has the greatest respect for the opinions or positions of others, but there is never any danger of her going back on her principles. On the other hand (and this is especially true for the European reader), the whole world of American colleges and universities comes to life, thanks to her evocative style: the difficult curriculum choices, the problems of racial integration, the atmosphere of universities with a religious identity, and the debates and tensions. The book makes very pleasurable reading, despite the problematic nature of the subjects dealt with.

The empirical enquiry is not based on induction from statistically significant data. The approach is essentially philosophical: but the theses she favors always emerge from the atmosphere breathed in recognizably real university environments, vividly described, and are illuminated through her bringing to life the fears and aspirations, the doubts and hopes, of higher education.

Nussbaum is a student of antiquity of the highest standard, as well as a moral philosopher: so it is not surprising that her theoretical equipment derives from classical Greek culture. The introduction to Cultivating Humanity starts with a reference to Clouds: the Socrates described by Aristophanes is the incarnation of conservative fears when education is the issue. The young people entrusted to him, forgetting their traditional values or their shared norms, become ostentatiously critical and disillusioned, indulging in discussions which are captiously relativistic, no longer "believing" in anything. The result of this teaching is sons who learn to justify beating their fathers. In today’s America, as in Athens then, great changes are taking place in humanistic education. New educational ideas and subjects have been entering the scene; the history and culture of non-western peoples, Afro-American studies, women’s studies, and the study of human sexuality, etc. Europeans often react to these innovations with an air of distaste, of aristocratic perplexity towards phenomena that (when one is in a good humor) may be considered as frivolous and merely following the latest fashion. Less benevolent feelings may generate more penetrating opinions: the new will seem the product of a politicized radical elite aiming to subvert traditional popular values, towards which it nourishes an elitist dislike in the name of the ideology of the politically correct. This, however, is a grotesque misrepresentation of the educational efforts of those who are seriously engaged in facing up to the issue of diversity – just as Aristophanes’ Socrates is a grotesque misrepresentation of the man who was Plato’s teacher.

Chapters 4-7 are about some of the specific features of these innovations, which are not the result of the capricious imagination of people who just wish to follow the latest ephemeral fashion. "Today’s teachers are shaping future citizens in an age of cultural diversity and increasing internationalization. […] The new emphasis on "diversity" in college and university curricula is above all a way of grappling with the altered requirements of citizenship, an attempt to produce adults who can function as citizens not just of some local region or group but also, and more importantly, as citizens of a complex interlocking world." (p.6)

The basic argument underlying Nussbaum’s Classical Defense is now clear: students in American universities should not just specialize in one subject with an eye to their future profession, but also acquire a liberal education, one which aims to cultivate the whole human being for the requirements of citizenship. At the same time, the world today is inevitably multicultural and internationalized. To be good citizens in this context means being able to be intelligent interlocutors every time these "diversities" generate social, political, moral and juridical problems: in professional fields or just as voters, as jury members or in private life.

Besides technical notions, therefore, a liberal education must provide specific abilities: the capacity to judge oneself, to assume a critical attitude towards one’s own traditions, following what is a truly Socratic ideal of the examined life. This means knowing how to think autonomously, as the citizens in a democracy are required to do, and not restricting oneself to exchanging mere opinions, but reflecting and discussing in a rational way. And one’s own personal responsibilities and choices are not to be delegated to any kind of higher authority. In addition, it is essential to know how to think of oneself without a unilateral auto-identification with any one particular group, especially as simply members of a nation. The reciprocal recognition required to work out answers to problems that actually leave out of consideration national frontiers involves special care, an ability to listen to others, and be able to handle the arguments of other kinds of culture. This is why the "fictional imagination" is so important, the ability to put ourselves in other people’s place, or see the world with the eyes of others. This ability comes to our aid every time we mean to take seriously, respectfully, the difference of another position, the diversity of an interlocutor.

In the first place, then, Nussbaum’s book is an attempt, in the grand style, to re-establish the primacy of philosophy. A liberal education for citizenship cannot do without philosophical knowledge. On the one hand "philosophy is not an abstract, remote discipline, but one that is woven, as Socrates’ arguments were woven, into the fabric of daily lives […]. Philosophy breaks out wherever people are encouraged to think for themselves, questioning in a Socratic way." (p.17) On the other, the plan of a liberal education thought of in these terms can only be coherent if it previously takes a clear stance on a whole series of issues. For example, if the relativistic idea that does not recognize differences of value between various possible moral options is not refuted, it is not possible to criticize practices and traditions that our reason finds repulsive, like slavery, caste discrimination, ritual mutilation, etc. Respect for diversity must not mean acritical acceptance. But confutation of a relativistic approach takes place at a philosophical level.

The citizens of a democracy can be relativistic, but good citizens of a good democracy probably won’t be. Democratic choice may naturally be thought of as a mere procedure for the resolution of conflict between competing interests, so that a liberal education and philosophical reflection lose some of their raison d’être; if, however, we think of democracy as the expression of a deliberate judgment related to our good, then philosophy has to be a fundamental component of educational curricula, which cannot afford to look with disdain on the task of forming citizens: "a course or courses in philosophy [should] play a vital role in the undergraduate liberal arts curriculum;" "a course or courses in philosophy should be required of all students." (p.42)

There are two critical targets in Nussbaum’s text, and even when the polemic is not explicit the informed reader can easily tell what is at stake. First, obviously, there is that conservative attitude which may take several forms, and that at its noble best generates books like Allan Bloom’s famous intervention. The Closing of the American Mind vividly expresses the widespread fear that critical scrutiny of one’s own traditions and values will finish up as an almost unthinking cultural relativism, holding all life styles equally good, and consequently weakening allegiance to our own. On the contrary, Nussbaum argues that "Confrontation with the different in no way entails that there are no cross-cultural moral standards and that the only norms are those set by each local tradition. If Bloom and others do think that American traditions are so fragile that mere knowledge of other ways will cause young people to depart from them, why are they so keen on endorsing and shoring up these fragile traditions?"(p.33) Conservatives therefore fear that critical, essentially Socratic philosophical reasoning, may subvert traditional values.

The other target is less popular and nowhere near as familiar, but more aggressively challenging in the academic world, though "progressive" rather than "conservative"; we mean of course post-modernist literary theories. These refined discursive strategies weaken rational or universalistic approaches, or the very idea of objective knowledge. Nussbaum recalls the way philosophers like Hilary Putnam, Nelson Goodman, Donald Davidson, W.V.O.Quine etc. think that the truth of certain claims can be established thanks to arguments that rightly claim objectivity and freedom from bias. The widespread tendency in the academic world to dismiss the idea of the search for truth and objectivity can be dangerous. The Sophists, as Nussbaum writes elsewhere, are among us. Yet these supporters of post-modernism do not seem able to justify some of their more extreme conclusions with convincing argument. Nussbaum comes down hard on Derrida, for example: "Derrida on truth is simply not worth studying for someone who has been studying Quine and Putnam and Davidson."(p.41)

The difficulties met with by unqualified metaphysical realism (if this is what we want to call the idea that truth is available only when we have an entirely non-mediated and non-interpretative access to the structure of reality, as the latter is in itself), have generated forms of radical subjectivism, relativism and scepticism. Those tending in this direction have usually taken care to avoid measuring themselves with the more moderate forms of "anti-realism": from the classical position of Kant’s first Critique to the (actually very Kantian) positions of Hilary Putnam, or the pluralism of Nelson Goodman, according to whom there are diverse acceptable versions of the world, but also strict criteria of correctness that can be employed to eliminate a great many that are not acceptable. The idea that all "preferring and valuing" is basically groundless, and that anything goes, may take on sophisticated and complex philosophical forms; but not facing up to Kant or to the best contemporary thinking on realism (not only Putnam and Goodman, but also Quine, Kripke and Lewis), has been damaging.

It is against this line of thought that Nussbaum has worked out a philosophical position able to give direction to practical, normative, ethical and political thinking. It is clear that a position of this kind is not merely different from every form of liberalism that attempts to choose its principles of justice without the foundation of a theory of good, but is actually alternative to it. It is a position that is going to be attacked by those who believe that the acceptance of even extreme forms of cultural relativism is the best way to get political action aiming at social progress, because capable of recognizing "the beauty of radical otherness". Naive cultural relativism leads rapidly to the elimination of every claim to rational evaluation, so that in the end, as Nussbaum fears, anything really does go. Acceptance of the dominant ethos, the acritical recognition of shared values, are the basis for intellectual and social conformism. The implicit danger of the moral majority has been intuited by many over some of the communitarians’ positions. Nussbaum when necessary criticizes, rather than justifies, the mainstream of local traditions or social bias.

Hers is by no means a sublime, if abstract, theoretical exercise. The possibility of rationally criticizing religious intolerance or the occurrence of discrimination is a most concrete political and existential question, which makes Nussbaum’s text absorbing even when we do not share her set of positions. Higher education at the university level is of crucial importance for the formation of "citizens of the world". Socratic self-examination, the fictional imagination, and logical argument, are all absolutely necessary capacities that philosophical teaching must be able to produce. And the content of Nussbaum’s practical philosophy is basically the noblest fruit of American liberal thinking:- respect for non-western cultures, without being tempted to allow legitimacy to degrading practices; respect for the "diversity" of women, of Afro-Americans, of gays, but from a rigorously universalistic perspective; and sensitivity towards the specific needs of religious universities, without either showing any secular intolerance or compromising universalistic believes. Nussbaum has energetically clarified what liberals have to say on liberal education. She has reminded us that the humanities faculties are not simply rooms where the transmission of shared knowledge occurs, but they are also the place where, together with the formation of true citizenship, we can and must carry out our duty of "cultivating humanity".


Gianfrancesco Zanetti , Department of Philosophy, University of Bologna, Via Zamboni 38, I-40126 Bologna.