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Is America making a mistake by orienting its education system towards national economic gain? In her new book, Not for Profit, University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum makes the case that the humanities are central to the education of citizens of a democratic state. I put six questions to Nussbaum about her book.
1. In India, advocates of Hindutva argue for education that extols the virtue of Hindu religion and ethnicity. In America, forces of the religious right—who now constitute a majority on the Texas school book commission—want history books that portray America as a Christian nation and offer a friendlier view of the Confederacy. You view these forces as a severe threat to modern education. Explain how you come to your view.
I want to separate two different aspects of the Hindutva scheme of education (now fortunately in eclipse in India). The first problem is that history was being presented in a distorted way, with a lot of factual errors, in order to produce students who had contempt for Muslims and who did not understand the history of their own highly plural and tolerant religion. But the second fault lies deeper: it is in the dedication to memorization, rote learning, and regurgitation that has characterized Indian education for a long time. If you learn bad facts but also learn how to assess historical evidence and criticize bad arguments, that skill will over time get the better of the bad facts. It is in conjunction with a pedagogy of passivity that the bad facts are particularly dangerous. The second flaw is not peculiar to the Hindu right. Indian liberals have also not done nearly enough to promote critical thinking or to try to devise textbooks that impart skills of reasoning, the analysis of evidence, and so forth. Some groups have tried this, but their efforts are not generally efficacious.
In Texas we clearly are dealing with bad facts. The representation of the religion of the Framers, for example, omits the fact that many were Deists, skeptical rationalists who rejected all traditional religion. More important, it omits the strenuous opposition of Madison, the primary architect of our Constitution, to any form of religious establishment, including that of Christianity itself. And it omits, I take it, the fact that for this reason our Constitution makes no mention of God. (I discuss all this in my book Liberty of Conscience.) Madison saw religious establishment as involving an implicit hierarchy, which ranked some citizens above others, and he thought that this sort of hierarchy was intolerable in a democratic society based on the idea of human equality. He even worried about things as apparently innocuous as a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. Unlike Jefferson, who refused to issue one because he did not want to associate the nation with religion, Madison did issue one as president, but he later said that he regretted that decision. So all of this should be studied, and at the same time students are most welcome to study the ideas of people like Patrick Henry, George Mason, and George Washington, who were more traditional Christians and less unfriendly to establishment. Let the students follow these debates and judge for themselves.
As for pedagogy in Texas, I just hope that whatever is in those books, the teachers will teach students to think for themselves, and show them how to analyze historical evidence. Nobody says they can’t bring in evidence that is not in the books, so I hope they will do that. Good teaching can make the textbook problem much less significant. We certainly have been much better off than India in the past because the idea of rote learning and regurgitation has been unpopular here. Now, with the No Child Left Behind Act, I’m afraid that rote learning is on the rise, as teachers teach to the test, rather than enlivening minds.
2. The Spelling Commission’s report, you argue, focuses entirely on education for national economic gain. What’s the matter with that focus?
I think that focus is only one part of what a system of higher education should be doing. Even to do that well, education needs to impart skills of critical thinking, and it needs to cultivate the imagination. Indeed, Singapore and China, whose systems of education focus entirely on national economic gain, have both concluded recently that their systems need reform in the direction of my proposals: more critical thinking and more cultivation of the imagination. (Of course they keep those skills carefully confined: students are not to deploy them in the political sphere.)
Apart from economic gain, a system of education (both K–12 and higher education) needs to prepare students for rich and meaningful lives, and–my primary focus–it needs to prepare them for democratic citizenship. If it does not cultivate skills essential to the health of democracy, democracy won’t survive. It’s that simple. For democracy to survive, young people have to learn to argue and deliberate. They need to be able to decide what they themselves want to stand for, giving reasons for their preferences to others rather than simply deferring to tradition and authority. Training in the ability to argue also produces greater respect for others, as people come to see that people who disagree with them also have reasons for what they choose. They develop healthy curiosity about those reasons, rather than seeing political argument as just an occasion to defeat the opposition.
The second skill a system of education must develop is the ability to think about groups other than one’s own, both inside and outside the boundaries of one’s own nation, understanding the implications of policy choices for lives of many different kinds. We live in an interdependent world, where some of our most pressing problems can be solved only by dialogue among different groups within each nation, and among diverse nations. So students need to understand world history and cultures, the global economy, and the major world religions.
Finally, woven through all of this must be a cultivation of the ability to think from the perspective of another person, what we might call the sympathetic imagination. We all are born with this capacity in a rudimentary form, but if it is not trained it will remain crude and highly uneven: it’s always easier to sympathize with people we know than with people we don’t know, and this produces policy choices that are similarly uneven. It’s all too convenient to forget or deny that choices have meaning for human lives, but if we energetically refine the ability to think about those lives from within, we will be better prepared to make non-obtuse choices.
3. Two figures that sit at the heart of your analysis are Rabindranath Tagore and John Dewey—two philosophers who you note shared many common views about education. What essential vision do Tagore and Dewey share, and where do they take different paths?
Tagore and Dewey both thought that education should produce active learners who know how to inquire and who will continue doing that throughout their lives. Both emphasized that teaching ought to be Socratic: teachers should not lecture to students but should lead them to draw conclusions on their own through clever questioning. They also shared the idea that education begins where one is, with a rich grasp of the local context, but ramifies out to include the whole chain of our human interactions. Dewey, for example, began with simple products, such as a piece of cloth, and led students to understand the complex operations of labor and economy in different parts of the world that were required to produce that–which led on, of course, into much discussion of world history, of the world economy, of labor and class distinctions, etc. Tagore did very similar things. He called his interdisciplinary university “All-the-World University.” Both, finally, shared the idea that the arts were modes of understanding that were absolutely crucial to the development of the student’s capacity for sympathetic understanding. Both used the arts throughout their curricula.
As for differences: Tagore was much more focused on dance than was Dewey, partly because he was a great choreographer, partly because he believed that women would not learn to lose shame about their bodies without the sort of rigorous dance training his school imparted. And he was much more occupied than Dewey with challenging gender stereotypes, often in shocking ways. He had ideas about the affirmation of the body that Dewey certainly did not express. Two names that are generally absent in Dewey’s writings about education are Freud and Marx. I think this is because Dewey was hounded by traditionalists in a way Tagore never was, so he had to steer clear of certain topics.
Another difference is in their personalities. Tagore was a genius, who made world-historical contributions in poetry, dance, painting, the novel, the short story, the song, and philosophy. So he was rather untrustful of others and didn’t believe that anyone else could run his school. Dewey was not a gifted artist, and in fact his dull prose style is certainly not an asset. But he was able to franchise out his vision to others, which is one reason why his vision has had more influence in the United States than Tagore’s has had in India.
4. You write that “each student must be treated as an individual whose powers of mind are unfolding and who is expected to make an active and creative contribution to each classroom discussion.” How can this approach be realized in public education, given economic conditions that lead to larger classrooms and less personal contact between teachers and students?
I don’t think that these goals are all that expensive to realize. Indeed, some of the best teaching of this sort I’ve ever seen has been done by nongovernmental organizations in rural India who have almost no money, no equipment, only their passionate dedication to teaching. Sometimes they don’t even have a building, or paper. Nor are these goals incompatible with large class size, though they are more difficult to realize in that setting, with younger children at least. I have taught classes of 500 students with smaller discussion sections led by graduate students. What I try to do is to make my lectures embody the drama of the give and take of argument; the graduate students do the more individualized job of assessing the arguments students themselves produce, orally and in written papers. Where there are no graduate students, peer commentary from the other students can work very well. I think with younger children it can work well too, although obviously the teacher has to take the lead in offering paradigms of good and bad argument.
Don’t forget that, although Socrates taught people one by one, his great student Plato decided to offer that teaching to the world at large, and he cleverly did so by devising a form of writing that engages the mind in argument–so Plato was already facing the problem to which you refer, and he solved it in a brilliant way.
This is not to say that we should not continue to press for small class size, but we should not think that if we don’t get it we must from then on teach in a routinized way, focusing on memorization and regurgitation. That simply does not follow.
5. In Arizona, the same forces that recently secured legislation authorizing police to demand proof of citizenship from all those who arouse suspicion are now seeking to shut down Latin American studies and weed teachers with Hispanic speech patterns out of the teaching force. You suggest, to the contrary, that teaching “intelligent world citizenship” is increasingly important. How would you explain your position to the Arizona legislators who are tugging in the opposite direction?
I think that there is a common misconception about ethnic studies, that they are intended to polarize the culture and whip up animosity. There are certainly some bad examples of ethnic studies classrooms that have done this, but really, study of the different ethnic, racial, and gender groups that have played a part in the history of one’s nation is part of being a decently informed citizen. Such classes, rightly practiced, would be integrated classes, open to all students, not places where the minority student can hide out from the majority and assert a minority identity. What would be reasonable would be for public educators to criticize any class that excludes people based on their ethnicity or gender. Both minority and majority need this learning, and they need to get it together, so that the classroom can be a place where baneful stereotypes are dispelled. Knowledge is no guarantee of good behavior, but ignorance is a virtual guarantee of bad behavior.
6. Why are the arts—theater, music, literature, and the graphic arts—an important part of the education process? Is the Obama Administration moving the country in the right direction on this issue?
The arts (and I’d add dance to your list) are extremely valuable for the development of sympathy and imagination. But one can add more, as I do with my study of the Chicago Children’s Choir in the book. The arts bring kids together across lines of class, race, and religion in an atmosphere of mutual reliance and trust, and in this way do more than the typical academic classroom to break down social barriers. They also promote a sense of discipline and accountability to others. And they show kids from a minority culture that all world cultures are open to them.
Promoting democracy through the arts, in fact, is the wave of the future all over the United States. You could study Gustavo Dudamel’s music programs with lower-income kids in Los Angeles, or Marin Alsop’s similar program with kids in Baltimore. Because of the tremendous success of the massive music program in Venezuela where Dudamel himself was trained, people are recognizing the power of the arts to overcome social exclusion and promote democracy. But for every program like this that comes into being through private funding, there are probably at least ten public schools that close down their music and theater programs. What a waste of opportunity.
I have studied all of President Obama’s speeches about education, and I’ve found no reference to the arts. Arne Duncan is not all that well liked by the arts community in Chicago, since so many cuts in art/music programs in the public schools took place on his watch. Indeed, a lot of the music education in the public schools is now being supplied by the Children’s Choir, a nonprofit organization funded by private donations. I hope that the President will speak up vigorously for the arts and the humanities, something that his own liberal arts education at Occidental College and Columbia University equips him well to do.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm
Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
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"She never thanked me, never looked at me—melted away into the miserable night, in the strangest manner I ever saw. I have seen many strange things, but not one that has left a deeper impression on my memory than the dull impassive way in which that worn-out heap of misery took that piece of money, and was lost."