July 21, 2003

the future of the humanities

I lost yesterday's posts due to the recent server changes at Movable Type----what their tech support crew say is the migrations of all ARTEMIS-based accounts to the new network operations. They went down old pathways.

I'm annoyed. I had spend hours on the net searching for material on philosophy in public life. So this post is a quick and dirty one; a cut and past job based on quotes in the light of these considerations about the fate of the humanities mentioned on public opinion. Greater depth and breadth on the humanities can be found here.

The first step is a link to this talk by Martha Nussabum, the American moral philosopher.

Given the current devastation of the humanities in Australia I find Nussbaum's remarks in defence of the humanities of interest. She says:

"I shall conclude with a more general fear: that the illumination and understanding that the humanities have given, and still give, to our undergraduates and our culture may gradually be lost. When administrators, parents, and students focus narrowly on the bottom line, it is difficult to see the relevance of literature and philosophy. These look like useless frills, distractions from the real business of education, which is all too often seen as preparation for a job."

This is certainly how the humanities are actually seen by the utilitarians in the government bureaucracies in Australia. Despite the lip service paid to their importance as trhe 'soul of the nation' the humanities are viewed as distractions from, or cultural ornamentations to, the business of real life which is making money and gaining power. Nussbaum's fear is a reality in Australia: the humanities' knowledge and understanding are being lost.

Nussbaum then questions the utilitarian approach. She says:

"The utilitarian approach to the humanities did enormous damage in Thatcher's Britain, where universities were asked to justify their humanities programs by showing that they contributed to economic growth. I recall an especially sad document in which the classics faculty at the University of Birmingham argued that they should not be cut because the department produced efficient managers for industry. Once one reaches this point, true though the instrumental claim may be, the game is usually lost."

One hears this kind of economic argument all the time in the humanities' disciplines in Australia. Doing various undergraduate courses give's graduates practical skills for jobs (reasoning/research) through mastering the course material. The game has been lost with that emphasis on technique as it implies that the humanities have no content. They are fluff and they cover their fluff by trying to be hard edged with a bit of technique, such as critical reasoning. Few are fooled by the move. It is commonly seen as desperation stuff.

Can we give a different account? Can we retrace our steps to escape this dead end of a wasteland? Nussbaum suggests so. What she sketches is worthy of consideration.

The first move Nussbaum makes is to displace the neo-liberal utilitarian conception of the humanities. This conception holds that the humanities are only viable if they are involved in, and contribute to, wealth creation. If they cannot contribute then they should be allowed to wither.

In response Nussbaum says that:

"American colleges and universities have never held a narrow, utilitarian conception of education. One thing we really can be proud of is that we (both left and right) have stuck to the idea that college education is a general preparation for citizenship and life. It is not difficult to see that the humanities provide essential ingredients for citizenship: clarity of mind, knowledge of the world, an expansive and subtle imagination. Many administrators and boards of trustees understand the importance of the humanities, and so far our institutions of higher education have not been eviscerated as have some in Europe. But we need to be vigilant."

We should add that the humanities have been eviscerated in Australia. They will only survive under a neo-liberal mode of governance if they transform themselves into creative industries.

The old idea of education for citizenship is not something that carries much weight in Australia. The old idea of the citizen has given way to the consumer with the freedom to choose in the global marketplace. Many are unable to go beyond the horizons of the market to make contact with citizenship and liberal democracy. The market has become the touchstone for everything. There is nothing else but the free market.

But it is possible to give 'education for citizenship' new content. Nussbaum's pathway is to do this by connecting the humanities to the world of public policy. She says:

"One thing my development work has shown me is that public policy made without the influence of the humanities is likely to be cramped and crude. The cultivation of the imagination that comes with the study of literature, the cultivation of ethical sensibility that comes with the study of philosophy and religion--these are essential equipment for citizens and policymakers in a world increasingly united and driven by the profit motive."

That connection between ethical sensibility and public policy is rarely made in Australia, despite all the recent talk about social capital, society and happiness. Presumably those who volunteer in civil society do so because they have ethical sensitivity to the plight and suffering of others; the volunteers want to make things better in some way. Hence their conduct embodies a practical philosophy of care and consideration.

Such a philosophy is what Nussbaum calls a practical and compassionate philosophy, one that is committed to the good of human beings and seeks that good through reasoning and argument. This is the Graeco-Roman conception of a life-transforming philosophy, or philosophy as a way of life that has been lost in the Australian academy.

Nussbaum illustrates this conception of philosophy with a couple of quotes. The following remark by Seneca is quoted by Nussbaum in another talk on philosophy and public life. In making these remarks Seneca is rejecting a conception of philosophy that has retreated the academy and has become little more than academic logic chopping:

"There is no time for playing around. You have been retained as counsel for the unhappy. You have promised to bring help to the shipwrecked, the imprisoned the sick, the needy, to those whose heads are under the poised axe. Where are you deflecting your attention? What are you doing?"(Ep. 48,8).

Nussbaum says that the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition holds, with remarkable unanimity, that philosophy has a practical task of ensuring flourishing human life. If it fails to perform this task, in its research and in its teaching, it will be rightly dismissed as "empty" and trivial. She then quotes Epicurus, who says:

"Empty is that philosophical argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in medicine, unless it casts out the illness of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out suffering from the soul."

Nussbaum notes that the major writers of the Stoic tradition––Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius––were both public philosophers and involved in political life. There is no memory of this conception of philosophy in the Australian academy. Moreover, Cicero, Seneca and Aurelius are never mentioned by the cultural conservatives who say that education is reading the great books of the western philosophical tradition. The conservatives offer a very selective reading of the philosophical canon.

Nussbaum then connects this Graeco-Roman philosophical tradition to contemporary life. She says that:

“One source of [these philosopher's] appeal for later audiences is the fact that these are people who are really enmeshed in practical politics, whose ruminations on human dignity, on anger and on the vicissitudes of life are not just academic, but also profoundly practical. Both Seneca and Cicero tell us that philosophy has something to offer our lives, and they bring philosophy into contact with the affairs of life.”

Now this is a long way from how we practice philosophy today in Australia. This conception of philosophy as a way of life that is enmeshed in practical politics is rarely mentioned by our philosophy academics. Yet it is a conception that involves education for Socratic citizenship. Socrates is remembered, of course, by the academics but te tradition of Socratic reasoning being linked to citizenship has been broken backed in a modernist philosophy.

Nussbaum recovers this Socratic political tradition. She says that Socratic citizenship means a person:

"... who can take charge of his or her own thought about the most important matters, conducting a critical scrutiny of received beliefs and becoming aware of how and whether they cohere, and how they may be defended."

What might that mean? Endless criticism of everything? Being a gadfly in liberal democracy by challenging the government's policy in immigration and its treatment of refugees or the war with Iraq? No, it is something much deeper. What we have from this reasoned criticism by a practical aand compassionate philssophy embodied in the volunteer groups in civil society is an ethical reason that is capable of a serious and deep scrutiny of the ends of human life. It questions the utilitarian assumption of the policy makers and their economic advisors that wealth creation is the goal of human life.

Nussbaum give this ethical reason depth by connecting it to public affairs. She makes the connection by turning to Aristotle and recovering one of his key arguments. She says that Aristotle held that:

"....a certain level of material well being -- while not an end in itself -- is nonetheless a necessary condition of the performance of those activities that are important as ends in a human life. One cannot think well if one is hungry. One cannot act justly if one is denied the rights and privileges of citizenship. One cannot be generous if one has nothing to give. One cannot maintain friendships if one is enslaved or imprisoned."

The implication that is drawn from this that a flourishing human life is the goal of human conduct. If the aim of politics is to provide all citizens with what they need in order to be capable of living a flourishing human life, then we citizens should design our institutions and public laws with this aim in mind. It is a flourishing life not wealth creation per se that our eyes should be on.

This then ties in with this;and it it connects with contemporary concerns about rethinking what we mean by development; It opens up into enabling broad civic involvement in economic and public policy making---opens up into democracy.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at July 21, 2003 03:56 PM | TrackBack

Gary, you would be surprised where the notions of citizenry, democracy and philosophy pop up. I've read at least three coaching books in the last few months that talk about these things. Very different from the corporatised version of sport that (usually) infests our newspapers and tv screens.

Posted by: dj on July 22, 2003 02:36 PM

how is citizenship, democracy, philosophy tied up with sport?
I'd love to know.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on July 22, 2003 07:17 PM

Just a short note. There is discussion about how to recognise individual difference within team sports, how to realise individual potential for disparate groups. Also discussion about ethics, democratic learning, what leadership is, cultural sensitivity. What part plays in creating a society of empowered individuals.

Posted by: dj on July 23, 2003 12:01 PM

Greetings- you left a comment awhile back on my blog kindofbluegreen. Thank you. I just saw it as I've not been blogging much lately. I've since wondered if I was more wrong than correct in the post that got your attention. That is, academic ideas flow into the general culture in many, many ways and the interested general public really does take advantage of this. Books reviews, the radio, the so-called popular books have a wide audience. And of course the academic bloggers are making their work known in a new way. I am glad you have the will to sustain thinking on these subjects. I may or not resume blogging with much energy before end of summer.

Posted by: susan on July 23, 2003 02:12 PM
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