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Humanities key to democracy, author claims


“We’re in the middle of a crisis…that has been going largely unnoticed–a worldwide crisis in education,” said philosopher Martha Nussbaum Thursday evening to a near-capacity audience at Cubberley Auditorium. “There are radical changes in what democratic societies teach young people, and these changes have not been well thought through.”


“If this trend continues, we will be producing generations of narrow technically-trained workers rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition and authority and understand the significance of another person’s suffering and achievements,” Nussbaum added.


Nussbaum, who is a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, spoke about the implications of the narrow, technical education students are receiving in many countries. She is author of the book, “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.”

American philosopher Martha Nussbaum addressed a Stanford audience Thursday night about the need for open-minded and ethical thinking to address social issues of the 21st century. (IAN GARCIA-DOTY/The Stanford Daily)


Nussbaum emphasized that democracies need citizens with well-rounded educations. She said that courses in the humanities teach citizens the needed, “ability to deliberate well–the ability to think about the good of nation as a whole, not just one’s group.”


Debra Satz, director of the Center for Ethics in Society and senior associate dean for humanities and arts at Stanford, introduced Nussbaum, emphasizing how Stanford is also concerned about the state of the humanities.


Satz noted that enrollment in humanities courses has “fallen on hard times.”


“It makes sense to re-gauge our priorities,” she added.


Satz also noted that in England and India, the humanities are seen by students and administrators as a luxury. She noted that there are pressures to make classes larger and teaching more cost-effective.


Nussbaum emphasized how the thinking about economic development must change to accommodate a broader education view.


“What does it mean for a nation to advance, to improve its quality of life?” Nussbaum asked.


While noting that some developmental models emphasize GDP, she warned that such an emphasis, “doesn’t take into account social equality, equality of race, gender relations and other aspects such as health and education.”


Nussbaum agreed with Indian educator Rabindranath Tagore, the first Indian winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, that “history has come to a stage when the moral man and the complete man is more and more giving way…to the commercial man, the man of limited purpose.”


Nussbaum also said, “students should learn the rudiments of world history and should get understanding of major world religions.”


She noted that, “learning how to see another human being not as a thing, but as a full person is not an automatic achievement.”


Nussbaum added that enhanced education in the humanities will “refine the ability to think.”


Many in the audience who spoke with The Daily agreed with Nussbaum’s sentiments.


“What Nussbaum is saying has a lot of resonance with what Stanford is trying to achieve in education,” said Tom Dougherty, a post-doctoral scholar in Ethics in Society. “We have a responsibility to think about how we’re going to make sure that those values get achieved outside the classroom and on the campus. It needs commitment from the individuals–both the teachers and the students need to be involved–it can’t be top-down. We need to have individual students and teachers making sure that the university experience turns students into great citizens.”


Nussbaum’s talk was sponsored by the Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford.