Defending the Humanities in a Liberal Society
Defending the Humanities in a Liberal Society
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter considers what kind of arguments in favor of the continued presence of the arts and humanities in higher education can be given that meet the test for liberal legitimacy. This test requires an argument to be cast in terms of reasons that all citizens could reasonably accept. The author proposes four such arguments. The first defends the value of the liberal arts on the grounds that they contribute not only to economic growth, but to individual and collective well-being conceived more broadly than in merely economic terms. The second argument defends the liberal arts as crucial for propagating robust democratic conversation amongst citizens. The third identifies the liberal arts as essential to providing individuals with a sufficient range of possible modes of life and with the tools necessary to evaluate their life choices. The fourth argument defends the liberal arts as providing forms of knowledge distinct from those achieved by the natural sciences.
Scholars of the arts and humanities have come to think of themselves as being increasingly under threat both in the United States and in my country, the United Kingdom.1 The reasons for this are various. One is a perception that the wider society conceives of the humanities as somehow useless or frivolous, an unnecessary luxury at a time of economic retrenchment and relative decline. According to this view, social resources should be diverted instead into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), since the future wealth and prosperity of nations depends on societies having enough people who are well educated and trained in those disciplines and who can contribute directly to economic growth. Choices by individuals, at least in the United States, partly reflect this perception, as the relative share of student enrollment in humanities is flat, and many students now pick majors with a clear vocational payoff instead.2
To these economic and social pressures on the humanities we can add a further source of anxiety both inside and outside the academy. Confidence in the humanities as the repositories of supposedly superior Western cultural values has largely disappeared. Except in a few culturally conservative circles, there is much less attachment than there once was to the idea of the objective superiority and unity of Western civilization, higher culture, and objective aesthetic values. Much of this loss of confidence has occurred for very good reasons and is based on more than a century of reaction to the wars and genocides of the past, and to the end of European colonial empires. Within the academy, this loss of cultural confidence has found expression in a loss of prestige for the canon of great books, a flirtation with (and occasional embrace of) various relativisms and subjectivisms, and a (p.27) somewhat democratic and egalitarian refocusing of interest toward the experience and culture of ordinary people and to the art, history, and experience of non-Western societies. The combination of this loss of confidence in traditional values with the rise of a utilitarian concern with growth and prosperity has, unsurprisingly, raised questions about whether the humanities should retain their place in the academy and its curriculum.
At the same time, this crisis of the humanities has a certain paradoxical aspect because it comes when the areas of human experience that these subjects take as objects of study have become more central to most people’s lives than they were in the past. Until recently most individuals, even in the Western world, spent the majority of their time preoccupied with the grim business of working in order to live and raise families. People lived shorter lives, and access to cultural goods was more limited than it is today. Though we may have reached a pause in the extension of leisure time, we still live in an era when, via media such as television, the Internet, and sound recordings, people have greatly increased the quantity and breadth of the drama and music they consume compared to their ancestors. The English critic Raymond Williams illustrates this strikingly: “It seems probable that in societies like Britain and the United States more drama is watched in a week or weekend, by the majority of viewers, than would have been watched in a year or in some cases a lifetime in any previous historical period … to put it categorically, most people spend more time watching various kinds of drama than in preparing or eating food.”3
The content of this contemporary imaginative world is often also the result of the importation and combination of the products of many different cultures, countries, and languages. This makes a richness of cultural experience available to individuals, at least potentially, that only elites could enjoy in the premodern age. This centrality of the arts is, of course, not a feature of our consumption time alone. It also impinges on the production of what we watch and listen to and of the things we use in our everyday lives. The creative expression and humanistic insight of artists, photographers, writers, musicians, and designers is channeled into the making of television programs, films, and advertising, and into the design of the most mundane household objects. The new world we live in is not, then, just the creation of scientists and engineers, but results from the collaboration of people who possess technical and scientific knowledge with others who have a flair for artistic expression. Given this more prominent place of the arts in the imaginative life of the population and their indispensable role in the appearance and “feel” of the contemporary world, the sense of embattlement on the part of humanities scholars seems discordant.
(p.28) In what follows, I explore some lines of defense and justification for the humanities. The first of these, familiar to anyone who has been listening to politicians in the United States or the United Kingdom over the past few decades, focuses on economic growth and development. According to this argument, the basic justification for education and research quite generally (and therefore for higher education as well) is to assist in the project of national material enrichment. Education aims to provide the workers the economy needs, and the purpose of research is to promote innovation and discovery so that “we” stay one step ahead of the competition. According to this outlook, if the arts and humanities are to retain their place, they will have to show that they contribute to economic growth. I conclude that whilst arguments directed to the well-being of citizens are perfectly in order, the specific growth-based form these have taken is far too narrow and gets in the way of the critical reflection to which the humanities can contribute.
The second line of defense agrees with my conclusion regarding growth: that this economic focus is mistaken and impoverished. After all, we are not just entrepreneurs and workers, but also citizens of democratic societies. If the humanities can be shown to have some essential role in the constitution of the citizens of such societies, perhaps by instilling in them democratic virtues or habits of mind, then we will have compelling reason to continue to support the study and teaching of them within the academy. Here I pay particular attention to the important arguments advanced by the University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum in a recent book.4 However, whilst allowing that the humanities have a contribution to make to the democratic conversation of a people, I find Nussbaum’s arguments unconvincing in some respects, largely because they claim too much.
A third set of arguments that relate to both the economic and political justifications, but is not reducible to either of them, concerns the way in which the humanities can keep alive a genuine diversity of views on ways to live and conceptions of the good in the face of strong societal pressures to uniformity. Though it would be wrong to put social resources in the service of any particular conception of the good, the preservation of choice in conceptions of the good is something in which citizens, as a whole, have an interest.
In the final section of this essay I advance a fourth set of arguments, the general thrust of which is an attempt to situate the humanities within the more general enterprise of advancing knowledge, both alongside the natural sciences and, in important ways, as complementary to them. This view of the humanities as part of the broad scientific enterprise has an instrumental component (as the example of medical humanities brings out) but also (p.29) takes part in a general human interest in knowledge about our world as such. This defense does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the provision of the humanities in the academy should continue in the same form that it traditionally has.
In what follows, I say very little about what the humanities are, presuming a rough consensus on the subjects we are talking about, even in the absence of a definition. If pressed, however, I would say something about their methodological unity. The humanities are that branch of inquiry that depends on interpretation and understanding in order to make sense of the world that human beings have made, of their culture, history, behavior, and artifacts. As such, it is not clear the humanities form a neatly compartmentalized domain, nor that they are reliably coextensive with the subjects that might be put in a university division of humanities for administrative purposes. There will be some parts of the social sciences that are humanistic in outlook or where both humanistic and more “scientific” approaches coexist, and there will be areas whose status is vague. Philosophy, for example, is not part of the humanities where it shades into mathematics but more clearly is in domains such as aesthetics and, perhaps, politics.
All of the above presupposes that we have some idea of the kinds of argument that would count as relevant to the defense and vindication of the humanities. I take as my starting point here the idea of liberal justification, as outlined over the past four decades by philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. The precise specification of that ideal is a matter of philosophical controversy, and some philosophers and political theorists reject it altogether.5 However, for the sake of argument, I shall take some version of that approach as specifying the kinds of justifications that are suitable for citizens to advance to one another concerning the deployment of public power and the nature of the basic institutions that they share. As I outline in the next section, there are both principled and pragmatic reasons to adopt this constraint on justification.
The liberal principle of legitimacy says that the policies of government and the institutions of society face a justificatory burden.6 They have to be capable of being justified to all of those over whom state power is exercised. On this view of state power, the public power, the res publica, belongs to all of its citizens. As such, it may not be used to limit their freedom, except for reasons they accept, or, more plausibly, rationally ought to accept.7 This creates a well-known difficulty in a pluralistic society, because there is a lack (p.30) of consensus among citizens on many matters of basic value. Citizens differ profoundly in their tastes and preferences, in their religious and political affiliations, in many of the aesthetic and moral ideals they embrace, and, no doubt, on other relevant dimensions. Given this plurality of values and commitments, the justification of state power and action becomes problematic, since policy makers cannot, whilst respecting their fellow citizens as their democratic equals, advance arguments that depend on premises they know many people in their society not only do not accept, but have no good reason to accept. Legislation and policy making cannot, therefore, proceed on the basis that some religious standpoint, such as Roman Catholicism, is true, and legislators and judges cannot advance arguments based on Catholic doctrine or teaching as such, since many citizens do not accept and cannot be shown to have reason to accept such arguments.
The constraints of liberal justification may seem to leave the state paralyzed and simply unable to act within whole areas of human life, but arguably this appearance is misleading. The state can continue to act, but it must justify its actions in terms that appeal to the shared reason of citizens, to their public reason. This leaves available a series of justificatory possibilities, some aimed at the individual well-being or freedom of citizens and others at the continued existence and flourishing of the political collective of which they form a part and of its constitutive relationships. In relation to individual persons, the state may legitimately act so as to promote and expand the broadly conceived well-being, opportunities, and freedoms of its citizens on the grounds that whatever their particular view of where their good lies, their interests will be advanced, or at least not harmed, by the state. Under the more collective aspect, there are two main possibilities. First, the state can act so as to promote and defend the just associative relationships that citizens have with one another as free and equal beings. It can preserve the very framework within which they advance arguments toward one another and take collective decisions. It can act so as to ensure that some citizens are not subjected to oppressive domination by others. (Both the maximization of freedoms and opportunities and their fair distribution are therefore, in principle, within the domain of legitimate state action.) Second, and perhaps more controversial, the state can take account of psychological and sociological facts that bear on the unity and preservation of the political order. This might, in principle, justify a program of patriotic education, ceremonies of national unity and belonging, and even, in an extreme case, an established church.8 This is not on the unacceptable grounds that the values thereby celebrated are the true ones, but rather because they (p.31) turn out to be—as a matter of sociological fact—functionally necessary to preserve a just social and political order.
When it comes to higher education, this liberal justificatory framework might seem to bear somewhat differently on countries such as the United States, with its diverse mix of provision, much of which is privately funded, from states such as the United Kingdom, where, at least historically, most of the support higher education has received has come through general taxation. Universities in continental Europe are almost entirely dependent on taxpayer support. No doubt there are important differences among these systems, but perhaps fewer relevant ones than appear at first. The biggest is that insofar as the pattern and extent of provision of higher education is a consequence of people making private decisions with resources they are justly entitled to, the liberal principle of legitimacy is not breached. If a person in a liberal society chooses to donate her justly earned income to the foundation and support of institutes of Islamic studies on the grounds that she believes Islam to be the one true religion, then that is a private matter of no legitimate concern to others. If the state were to use common resources to do the same thing, that would be an injustice against followers of other religions.
However, there is a broader set of considerations in play. The first of these concerns is the capacity of private donors to seriously affect the provision of higher education. A highly unequal society, in which very wealthy donors are able to pursue philanthropic projects to the extent to which they do in the United States today, may itself be incompatible with the liberal order because of the way in which the economic inequality of citizens can undermine their political equality. In addition, the state is often implicated in such private donations via the tax concessions it makes with respect to charitable donations and its policy decisions regarding what counts as a charitable purpose. Such policies must pass the test of liberal justification. Second, the higher-education sector is an important part of what Rawls calls the “basic structure of society,” which has huge effects on how citizens’ lives turn out, both individually and compared to one another. As such, the state in all liberal societies has an interest in seeing to it that the aggregate effects of the operations of the sector are consonant with the demands of justice, whatever the degree to which the state is involved directly in educational provision. In this respect, the legitimate state interest in the regulation of higher education can be seen as being similar to its interest in the regulation of other industries and activities for the public benefit. Such examples include food hygiene regulations, safety standards, and regulation of the economy (p.32) and tax system to ensure that individual choices do not unjustifiably erode equal opportunity or worsen the prospects of the least advantaged.
So what then, within this framework, of the arts and humanities? The liberal justificatory approach seems to rule out defenses of the arts and humanities within higher education or, at least, of state support and provision for them, that proceed from aesthetic, moral, or religious premises that many citizens cannot endorse, such as the objective superiority of the Western canon. Many commentators on recent developments have noticed this and bemoaned it. For example, in a series of articles in the London Review of Books, the British critic Stefan Collini portrays the shift from objective cultural values, as a justification for higher-education policy, to economic and political ones as being the ephemeral stuff of fashion:
Very broadly speaking, the extension of democratic and egalitarian social attitudes has been accompanied by the growth of a kind of consumerist relativism. The claim that one activity is inherently of greater value or importance than another comes to be pilloried as “elitism.” Arguments are downgraded to “opinions”: all opinions are equally valuable (or valueless), so the only agreed-upon criterion is what people say they think they want, and the only value with any indefeasible standing is “value for money.”9
But this seems wrong. The shift Collini is complaining about is best understood not as a mere change in fashion that might just as easily change back, but as part of a broadly justified change in the understanding of the reasons for study of the liberal arts that are applicable to public policy in a liberal and democratic society. Collini construes this change too narrowly, since economic benefit is not the only kind of value that can pass the test of liberal justification. However, he is wrong to reject the worries concerning elitism. Insofar as the arts and humanities rely upon things such as education policy, legislation, or the support of the taxpayer, and thereby also on the power of the state to conscript, coerce, and tax our fellow citizens, there are serious limits to the values that can be called upon to justify this. That a policy will, perhaps over the long term and by indirect means, provide people with more resources with which to pursue the aims they have chosen for themselves is the kind of justification we can imagine them accepting. Similarly, that the arts and humanities are in some way implicated in the formation of competent citizens or that they bolster sensitivity to matters of social justice is good liberal grounds for support. Objective aesthetic values are not: if fans of country music, for example, have a hard time understanding and accepting that they should pay taxes to support the study (p.33) of Latin poetry or the works of Webern, it is not difficult to sympathize with them.
The approach adopted in this essay is, then, one of epistemic self-denial of the exclusion of certain reasons for action and policy. As such, it will strike some readers as irrational. Surely, they will say, policy should be based on all the best reasons applicable to an issue, rather than on an arbitrary subset of such reasons. Such complaints may have their basis in consequentialist theories that grant no distinctive importance to ideals of society as associations of free and equal citizens, who owe one another reasons in justification of coercion. Alternatively, they may come from perfectionist views, more inclined to defend the arts and humanities, for example, in terms that accord with their own self-image and the personal values of their scholars and practitioners. This is not the right place for a full adjudication of the merits and demerits of such competing approaches. I am inclined to defend the liberal justificatory approach on grounds of moral principle, on the basis that it is wrong and unjust to employ the coercive force of the state, in terms that could not be justified to those subject to it. However, for those unconvinced of the principled reasons behind such a stance, or perhaps skeptical of the notion that we can sort out all the difficulties involved with the idea of justification to a person, I would urge a more pragmatic case. In a democracy, we need to convince politicians and the electorate they represent, of the need to support higher education generally, the scientific enterprise broadly considered, and, within that, the arts and humanities. We stand more of a chance with that task if we can couch our arguments in terms they have good reason to find acceptable and comprehensible and can avow openly. From the perspective of this chapter, therefore, principle and pragmatism converge.
Justifying the Humanities on Economic Grounds
As should be clear from the previous section, one of the kinds of justification that looks at least prima facie justifiable in a liberal society is one focused on expanding the well-being, opportunities, and freedoms of citizens, improvements that might very plausibly occur through an increase in the wealth and income both of individuals and of the society as a whole. Such justifications have featured in prominent arguments around education policy, generally in both the United States and the United Kingdom. In the United Kingdom they have been central to recent policy discourse on higher education. As a result, in trying to mount a case for the arts and humanities, academics and their representative bodies have echoed these concerns, making the case that, far from being a luxury, these subjects can make a contribution to economic (p.34) growth alongside the natural and applied sciences. Though these justifications are, in principle, acceptable in form, they suffer in practice from two related defects. First, they take it as settled that the goal of national policy should be economic growth in the narrow sense of the expansion of gross domestic product, and that this will bring jobs and prosperity to the population. Second, because they take that question as settled, they neglect other policy options that might do a better job of improving collective well-being. To make the first of these points is to say that the goals of public policy, including in the economic sphere, ought to be a matter for public argument and debate, and that, therefore, securing the conditions under which such argument and justification are possible has a logical priority over any particular policy objective. Accordingly, making participation in such argument possible ought to be one of the central concerns of the educational system generally, and of higher education in particular. If the arts and humanities can be shown to play an important role in this, then some of the business of justifying them will have been done. (I address the potential contribution of the arts and humanities to this in the next section.) To make the second point is to draw attention to policies, other than growth promotion, that may also contribute to the well-being and freedom of citizens and that the growth-promotion agenda tends to hide from us.
Though the United States, like other countries, has a rich tradition of thinking about the value and purpose of education, this tradition is not much in evidence in the public pronouncements of politicians. As an example, take a speech on education by President Barack Obama on March 10, 2009. There the focus is clear: education is the foundation of national prosperity, and America is falling behind other nations. Education should aim not just to provide all with valuable skills, but also to assist in an economic battle among nations. As President Obama puts it, “It is time to prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world.”10 In the United Kingdom, the so-called Browne Report, “Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education,” is the underpinning of current higher-education policy. Commissioned by the Labour government before the 2010 general election, its terms of reference reflect a bipartisan consensus about the aims and purposes of universities. Although the report makes token reference to the fact that higher-education institutions “create the knowledge, skills and values that underpin a civilised society,” the entire thrust of the more elaborate justifications it offers concern the competitive benefits to the United Kingdom of having a highly educated workforce and the personal benefits for individuals, construed in terms of (p.35) career advancement and income, of having a university degree.11 Browne, in this respect, represents the culmination of a trend that has been in evidence in the United Kingdom since the 1970s.12 Higher-education funding in the United Kingdom has undergone a series of changes over recent decades, from an arm’s-length system whereby government handed over a large sum of money to the University Grants Committee, which then disbursed it to universities, to the very different (but still largely taxpayer-supported) framework that exists today. The causes of this change have been political demands for relevance to growth and skills and a linked concern with taxpayer accountability. Government funding priorities have shifted over time in favor of the STEM subjects and against the arts, humanities, and social sciences in light of the central government’s views about the importance of different subjects to economic growth. As a consequence of these changes, there has been an erosion of provision in the arts and humanities. Funding cuts in the 1980s led to the closure of numerous departments, including departments of philosophy, and more recently provision in philosophy has been threatened at Liverpool and Keele and withdrawn at Middlesex and Greenwich. One university, the University of East London, responded to financial pressures by announcing the closure of all of its arts programs. The teaching of modern languages has been particularly hard hit, with many universities abandoning these subjects entirely.
Responses by academics and their defenders to these pressures and changes have essentially been twofold. First, there have been complaints that this focus on the economic benefits of universities is absurdly narrow and that policy should also take account of the intrinsic value of research and scholarship, independent of its wider social benefit. These kinds of arguments have not been generally well received by governments, which tend to regard them as a species of special pleading by academics. If the liberal justification argument has merit, then governments have a point: again, why should taxpayers continue to fund research into, say, medieval French poetry on the grounds of its intrinsic value when it is something that many of them do not, in fact, value? In any case, many activities have intrinsic value but are not deemed worthy of state support or a place in the curriculum. Second, there have been arguments to the effect that, despite appearances, the arts and humanities do provide a direct economic benefit and that the concentration on STEM subjects is therefore misguided.13 Many of these economic counterarguments have some validity. Academics in the arts, humanities, and social sciences can point to the fact that in an economy that has moved from manufacturing to the service sector over recent decades, (p.36) the skills they impart to their students have a real economic payoff, whereas government support for engineering and mathematics has led to a surplus of graduates in those fields who often do not secure jobs in manufacturing. However, just as in the United States, whilst academics are keen to stress the skills benefits of their disciplines, they show very little interest either in looking to see exactly how those skills might best be developed or in focusing directly on their development.14 The indirect effects of, say, medieval poetry on transferable skills look like a thin and ex post facto justification for the discipline—after all, some other method or area of study might develop the same skills more effectively.
However questionable these narrowly economic arguments are, however, there is a deeper reason that we should worry about their applicability. This is that the economic argument, though presented as an acceptable one under the framework of liberal justification, actually hides some deep-seated biases that liberals should be concerned about, perhaps particularly in the context of higher education. Because of these biases, standard models of growth cannot fully supply the kind of neutral metric for policy decision making that liberal justification requires. Although it is well within the bounds of acceptable liberal justification to advance arguments based on the well-being of citizens, there is no good reason to confuse these considerations of well-being—either individually or collectively—with financial benefit, narrowly understood. The well-being of individuals is plausibly linked not only to the amount of money they earn, but also to other matters, such as the free time they have at their disposal for looking after themselves or others, for pursuing other interests including nonremunerated work, for leisure, and so forth. It is also linked to the quality of the natural and social environment, so that a society in which everyone has more money in an environment marked by increased pollution and loss of species diversity, or where there are increased levels of crime, or where it is unsafe to let children ride bicycles on the street may well be a society where people are worse off in their real standard of life, despite their greater monetary wealth. Nor is it enough to leave these questions entirely to be the outcome of individual choices, because the natural and social environment and the factors that affect people’s decisions to work longer hours or not form part of the background against which individual choices are made. Liberal justification therefore has to be concerned not only with the choices people make, but also with how the menu from which choices are made gets to be written, a matter which is to a large extent subject to political decision.
Two matters in particular merit attention. The first is that there are many (p.37) good reasons to think that the growth model as it has been traditionally understood will not continue to provide increases in real well-being but, rather, that the pursuit of business-as-usual growth policies both will result in catastrophic environmental harm in the fairly near future and will not be economically sustainable. The most prominent reason for this is, of course, climate change, which threatens to make much of the planet unlivable and also to inflict serious long-term economic damage.15 Economies based on the need to extract hydrocarbons and other minerals, such as metals, will also start to struggle as these resources become progressively scarcer and rise to higher and higher prices. The second question is that the growth model as currently pursued has not, in fact, provided growth and prosperity for many citizens even of advanced countries, nor has it provided enough people with desirable and fulfilling jobs. Societies such as the United States may have become wealthier on average, but that average hides a remarkable growth in inequality of wealth and income and static or declining real standards of life for many people. Historically, the standard growth model may have been a good proxy for judging changes in real well-being. But its neglect of environmental externalities and domestic labor and its bias against leisure time means it now falls short of what we need.
There is therefore a pressing need on both environmental and social grounds for thinking about how to decouple real well-being from continual GDP growth. This is a multidisciplinary task. Part of it involves thinking about new economic models, and part of it involves philosophical reflection on the meaning of prosperity and well-being. In this latter respect the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum in elaborating the capability model has been of great value.16 If the economic models that we eventually adopt involve many people spending less of their time in paid employment than they do now, that also provides us with reasons to refocus our educational effort away from an almost exclusive focus on training people for jobs and toward giving them the resources that will enable them to make the best of the whole of their time. In both the elaboration of a more sophisticated understanding of well-being and in providing individuals with the cultural materials to secure it, higher education, and the arts and humanities in particular, have an indispensable role to play. Of course, these are hard or even impossible messages for political leaders to address whilst we are still living in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash and at a time when a renewal or deepening of that crisis seems very likely. In such an atmosphere, the options seem limited to ones of ever greater austerity, with the poorest hit hardest, and a renewal of economic growth in order to provide jobs. But those (p.38) limited political options do not exhaust what should be up for discussion in a liberal state, particularly if environmental and social realities will soon reassert themselves.17
Democratic Citizenship and the Humanities
Arguments that focus on economic and similar benefits meet the test of liberal justification in principle because they provide a demonstrable connection to the material well-being of citizens. Since all citizens are, on this account, presumed either to benefit from or, at least, not to be harmed by the supply of additional resources with which to pursue their individual plans and projects for life, we have arguments that everyone seems to have good reason to accept, even if, as actually put, they are often incomplete or misleading because of their inattention to other aspects of life. People who care about the arts and humanities, however, are likely to find the economic arguments frustrating and uncomfortable, even when they believe they have merit. Shakespeare may attract visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon and the Globe and generally boost the British economy through his effects on the tourism and publishing industries, but teachers of English literature will undoubtedly feel that this benefit, though real, is far too disconnected from the reasons that their passion warrants interest and support. If straightforward arguments of cultural and literary superiority are unavailable, however, because they cannot be shared by our fellow citizens, there nevertheless exists an attractive alternative line of justification rooted in the moral and political effects of literature and art. Justifications of this type have to be somewhat indirect, because some moral claims are impermissibly perfectionist for liberal justification; but arguments that center on the power of the arts and humanities to foster our capacities as citizens of a democratic society, and, in particular, on our abilities to act justly toward one another, look acceptable in form.18
Thoughts along such lines have recently been advanced by Martha Nussbaum in her book Not for Profit. She argues that the arts and humanities have an essential role to play in a democracy because they foster moral capacities that are essential to citizens living in relations of justice together. Specifically, she argues that the arts and humanities, by developing empathy and the ability to imagine the life of someone else, enable us to overcome divisions among humanity that foster violence, racism, and injustice. Being able to see the world from the perspective of another person who does not share our circumstances or culture, for example, is essential to being able to act with fairness and justice, and to making it possible for us to moderate (p.39) our demands for self-advancement in the name of a proper recognition of the personhood and interests of strangers. I agree with Nussbaum that it is necessary for individuals to acquire the capacity to act justly toward others if we are to have a stable, just, and democratic society. I am more skeptical about her arguments that the academic study of the humanities is required for this.
An initial difficulty in evaluating Nussbaum’s position comes from the variety of claims that she makes. These are often not just about higher education, but about education more generally. Since the arts and humanities are present in the curricula at all levels of the education system and also form part of the research mission of universities, an argument could be made for an important role for the humanities within education that is nevertheless compatible with the ending of all tertiary-level activity except teacher training. However, this is not her view. Instead, she argues that for democracies to be healthy, humanities education must be provided at all levels, including to students whose primary field of study is within the STEM subjects or who are pursuing business or vocational qualifications. In other words, she argues for the vital role of something like the U.S. liberal arts model. Further, she argues not just for the provision of the humanities at all these different levels and to these various recipients, but for a specific kind of pedagogy—the Socratic method—as being the key to their effective teaching. It is sometimes difficult to work out, for some feature of educational provision, whether Nussbaum thinks that particular feature is necessary for the formation of democratic citizens or merely desirable.19
Is it necessary that citizens, in order to acquire the democratic virtues, be exposed to the arts? And does this require that the arts form part of the curriculum? My answer here has two parts. The first is to note the pervasive place of the arts in life both historically and today, quite independently of the formal educational system. Given this, it seems likely or even certain that the arts would continue to be practiced and that humans would continue to be exposed to them whether or not we taught them explicitly in schools. The second is to draw attention, from a democratic perspective, to a grave danger in Nussbaum’s stance: she risks implying that those of our fellow citizens who lack instruction in the arts and humanities to whatever degree she thinks necessary will also therefore lack the moral qualities required for them to function as full members of a democratic society.
Access to and participation in the arts has a history that predates formal educational systems and has been to a large extent conducted outside of and sometimes in conflict with such systems. Indeed, the pervasiveness of art, music, and storytelling in all human cultures suggests that we are looking (p.40) at a very basic human need and drive that will continue whether or not educators and governments find a formal place for it. Indeed, whole art forms—perhaps jazz would be a good example—have been created and developed by people who are at the margins of the official educational system. Folk traditions of storytelling and song, often continued by illiterate people in many countries, ensure that narratives, often of vast complexity, are part of the common heritage of humankind. Very often we find that the official academy privileged in Not for Profit as the essential disseminator of cultural sensibility is the very last institution to recognize the nature and value of new artistic, literary, and musical developments, clinging to archaic models of what counts as art and literature when the real changes are happening elsewhere. If the creative aspects of culture often happen outside the academy, this is also the case with its consumption. In the passage from Raymond Williams I quoted at the beginning of this essay, he notes that ours is the first civilization in history to spend more time in watching drama than in food preparation. If exposure to imagined scenarios and the lives of other people and peoples is necessary for the development of empathic imagination, surely there is more of this now, through the medium of television, than ever before.20
For these reasons, I incline to optimism on the first point; but my second is that pessimism has acute dangers for the philosophical democrat and for political equality. If, contrary to my hopes for folk art and television, the vast majority of the population will not get sufficient exposure to the arts and humanities outside of the formal education system, what lesson should we then draw for democracy? Our answer to this may depend on what level of instruction turns out to be necessary in order to acquire the necessary virtues. Nussbaum seems pessimistic: “If this trend [of changes in what is taught] continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens, who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.”21 Now, as I just made clear, I am much less pessimistic about the capacity of ordinary people to secure the level of exposure to the arts that Nussbaum deems necessary for empathic imagination without a program of formal instruction; but let us assume that she is correct about this, and that formal instruction is actually required for people to function as competent citizens. We already have many citizens who are lacking in formal education of all kinds. Presumably, by Nussbaum’s lights, they fail to achieve a threshold of competency. If we add to their number citizens whose competence is restricted to science, engineering, and technical (p.41) or vocational subjects and who lack any record of engagement with art, literature, or music, there is a substantial proportion of the population of most advanced democracies who lack the background that Nussbaum thinks necessary to function as a full member of the political community. It is not clear what ought to follow from this. Those who think that the justification for political democracy is essentially instrumental and conditional on the quality of decision making might,22 if they agreed with Nussbaum about the background facts, think of this as informing a case either for restricting the franchise or for giving multiple votes to those who enjoy the relevant competencies.23 Others, whose commitment to democracy is based on some right to participation flowing from political equality,24 will be more troubled if many citizens lack the qualities necessary to make effective use of the rights they enjoy.
It is best if citizens have all the desirable cognitive and emotional attributes needed for full participation, insofar as they have the capacity to acquire them. Those capacities for critical reasoning, argument, and empathic imagination are identified by Nussbaum with the humanities. Other capacities, including statistical analysis, deductive logic, and scientific reasoning, generally are more closely associated with the sciences. If we are designing a curriculum with the aim of political participation as a key aim, but one that it must share with others—because citizens have wider interests than just politics—what the balance between these two sides should be seems to be an open question. Capacities for the kinds of cognitive engagement necessary for democracy are associated with a range of different subjects. Some of them—certainly mathematics and the natural sciences—cannot be acquired without formal instruction. In the case of the capacities distinctively fostered by the humanities, it may be, as I have argued, that a considerable amount can be picked up from the wider culture, such as television, reading, music, and so on. To the extent to which this is so, the implications for the curriculum do not necessarily favor the humanities. In addition, since both adults and children vary in their aptitude for the sciences, humanities, and education generally, there must also be worries about designing education in such a way that those whose natural bent is on “the other side” are obliged to receive instruction in the disciplines for which they feel least affinity. There has to be at least a risk that such classes are resented by their recipients, with effects very much the opposite of those Nussbaum wants to produce.
In Not for Profit, however, Nussbaum is a firm advocate of the broad-based U.S. system, even in tertiary education. She makes this clear in a passage where she commends the U.S. model, counsels against any attempt to water it down by distinguishing between core and non-core humanities disciplines, (p.42) and holds up the example of Europe, with its tendency for students to concentrate on one or two subjects over a narrow range, as providing a mode and content of higher education ill-suited to democratic citizenship.25 It is hard to know how we might evaluate these claims. Nussbaum’s own procedure seems to be one of thinking about the ideal of democratic citizenship and the kinds of knowledge (say, of other countries and cultures) that would be necessary for its exercise. She then notes that these are more salient in the U.S. system than elsewhere. But other ways of thinking about the problem do suggest themselves. We could look at the political cultures of different countries, at their rates of participation in elections and membership of political parties, at the quality of political debate in their mass media, and at a host of similar indicators. We could then ask whether those countries, whose tertiary education system is modeled on the liberal arts, tend to do better in these dimensions than those whose students study a narrower range of subjects. I have not conducted such a survey, so I can only rely on impression and guesswork, but my current belief is that the political culture of Western Europe is not in worse shape than that of the United States. Of course, there are many complex historical reasons, going far beyond the educational system, that explain why countries have the political cultures that they do. So, noticing a lack of correlation between the features of the educational system that Nussbaum finds desirable and the political effects she prizes, her argument cannot be taken as conclusive. It may be that without a liberal arts approach the political culture of the United States would be worse than it is, and that with such an approach that of Western Europe would be improved. Similar thoughts and arguments can be deployed concerning the style of pedagogy for which Nussbaum argues (Socratic and participatory rather than passive and authoritarian). The French educational system, for example, is notably authoritarian in style at all levels, yet this does not seem to result in a marked citizenship deficit compared to the United States.
Some of the difficulties with Nussbaum’s arguments, as I see them, stem from her propensity to make stronger claims than she needs. An argument defending the humanities from a politically liberal perspective need not make the case that the provision of the humanities in some form to all students at all levels is absolutely necessary if citizens are to acquire the capacities they need for democratic participation. Weaker and more defensible arguments are available, ones that can draw on the evidence she adduces. First, we can argue that exposure to the humanities at some level is both desirable for the formation of citizens of a liberal state and also necessary, because without such exposure it will be impossible for them to learn important (p.43) facts about themselves, whether their own aptitudes are for arts, sciences, or some mix of the two. Secondly, a social version of Nussbaum’s argument is surely more plausible than the one she puts. It may not be necessary to democracy that everyone receive an education in the humanities, but it is surely necessary that arguments derived from the humanities—from art, literature, and history—find a place within the political process. If we think about democracy as a collaborative and social process involving a conversation among citizens where each brings his or her own particular knowledge and skills to the discussion, we can see that it is not essential that each person have the full complement of abilities and information, but rather that these are present somewhere in the system and are able to get a hearing. A democratic conversation after September 11, 2001, for example, did not require that everyone have a background in Middle Eastern politics, history, and Islamic theology, but it did require that there be some citizens with this knowledge and the capacity to inform and explain to others; it can be very hard to predict which particular specialty will turn out to be relevant.26 From these two points, a great deal of what Nussbaum wants as a matter of practice and policy surely follows. If children are to be exposed to literature, art, and history, then they surely need to be taught by teachers, who first need to be educated. If some citizens need to be informed about the history of Islam or the Russian novel, then someone needs to educate them. If we are to have experts on those subjects to write for our mass media and communicate with their fellow citizens, then we surely need some researchers at a high level and university departments that will produce new generations of researchers, educators, and so on.
A third source of liberal justification for the humanities focuses neither on furnishing material resources to people nor on their political life as citizens of a democratic society, but on providing individuals with a range of possible modes of life and with the tools necessary critically to evaluate the life choices they might make. This sort of argument has its roots in the thought of John Stuart Mill: the humanities provide material for “experiments in living.”27 On this account, the humanities are seen not, as they are in conservative elitist defenses of them, as being the guardians of objective value, but rather as preserving the diversity of possible ways of living in the face of societal (and especially market) pressures to conformity. In Mill’s own work, these ideas are given a perfectionist spin through their connection to a rather substantive conception of autonomy, but it is perfectly possible to recast them in Rawlsian terms. In Political Liberalism, Rawls attributes to citizens an interest in and a capacity for reflection on the nature of the good life and the ability to form, revise, and pursue a conception of the (p.44) good. Citizens with such an interest have a related interest in having material to work with, and art, literature, and history can provide individuals with sources of inspiration and reflection concerning what their aims in life should be.28 Similarly to the “democratic citizenship” case for the humanities, this justification, focused on providing citizens with adequate resources to make and reflect on their life choices, has implications for the curriculum to the extent to which it is the case that citizens will otherwise lack access to essential cognitive resources. Similarly to that argument, citizens also can benefit from other nonhumanities education (mathematics and the natural sciences) in evaluating their own choices, but it seems plausible that the humanities, in depicting the history and imaginative choices involved in other lives, can have a special role to play in helping people to get a perspective on their own.
The Humanities as an Essential Source of Knowledge
The well-being of citizens generally, the associative needs of democratic polities, and the interest citizens have in forming and revising their conceptions of the good give us reasons to support the arts and humanities as fields of study and inquiry, reasons that can meet the test of liberal justification. Some will think, though, that there is something unsatisfactory about these justifications. They may pass the liberal justification test, but they also have the flavor of desperate rationalizations of practices developed for other reasons and in different times. The reasons the traditional university curriculum in the arts and humanities has the shape that it does have very little to do with its real usefulness for economic development and not much to do with a liberal and democratic ideal of citizenship.29 Rather, they are often connected to ancient religious affiliations and to conceptions of the kinds of knowledge appropriate to the exercise of aristocratic virtue. Now that those historical causes and justifications of a set of institutions have fallen away, as happens so often in human life, people look around for new justifying reasons.
However, there may still be another justification that passes muster. In this final section, I shall concentrate on a more methodological and perspective-based justification in support of the humanities as being part of the scientific enterprise broadly conceived. This does not entirely vindicate the humanities as such, but it puts them under the protective canopy of a wider set of practices that are much less politically and socially controversial. The scientific enterprise in this broad sense, having to do with the discovery of knowledge about the world, is not entirely without critics, since skeptics occasionally (p.45) doubt the usefulness of pure science and mathematics, but still stands less exposed than the humanities. This final source of justification is that (a) the human world, the world of human experience, is a bona fide part of the world, to be equally considered as those parts of the world studied by the natural sciences, and (b) its study requires methods of understanding and interpretation developed by and characteristic of the humanities. This has two aspects. First, because the methodologies of the humanities discover genuine truths about aspects of the world that are invisible or impenetrable to the natural sciences, the humanities are operating in parallel with the natural sciences. Secondly, for some objects of study the humanities provide us with a perspective that is complementary to that of the natural sciences.
The claim that the humanities and the human sciences more generally give us access to some truths about our human world that the natural sciences cannot provide is an old one, associated with Vico and with Dilthey’s distinction between the Geisteswissenschaften and the Naturwissenschaften and with the contrasting methods of verstehen and erklären. Some versions of this thesis put it in a very strong form, claiming that lived human reality, saturated as it is with meaning, is knowable only by interpretation.30 On this strong view, only subjects who themselves interpret subjects can grasp the inner semantic connections and contrasts among the various elements of a text or an artwork and the wider social and cultural reality of which it forms a part. Only humans with interpretative skill can understand the significance of particular actions and gestures within a social complex. These strong versions deny, in principle, that it is ever possible to understand society using the methods of the natural sciences. That seems much too strong. In psychology, sociology, economics, and other disciplines in the social sciences, there is surely a role for the observation of regularities, for experiment, and for new perspectives on our world that show how humanistic understanding can mislead us. A more moderate thesis seems in order, one that allows for humanistic methods and those of the natural sciences to be complementary in understanding the human world. In practice, we are unable to understand that world, and especially the historical elements of it, without drawing on our capacities for empathy, grasping meaning, and imaginative understanding. If we believe, for example, that a proper understanding of who we are and the societies in which we now live depends, to some extent, on grasping the historical origins of those societies, then we will also believe that humanistic understanding is an essential component of the broad knowledge-gathering enterprise.
We need not confine ourselves, however, to the idea that the humanities have a role to play in the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake. The humanities (p.46) can complement the applied sciences, medicine, and engineering precisely because of their sensitivity to the perspective of the subject and her lived experience. Let me give two examples of this, the first from architecture and the second from medicine.
The prestige of the natural sciences in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century led to the widespread adoption of an engineering perspective in fields such as architecture and urban design. However, this focus on inputs and outputs and on designing “machines for living” based on an abstract specification of human need turned out to be disastrous in human terms. It turned out that the subjective, and indeed aesthetic, experience of people was essential for them to live in anything like well-functioning communities.31
A second illustration of this complementary “hard” science and human experience is the emerging field of medical humanities, a group of related interdisciplinary fields of study linking the humanities (including literature, philosophy, ethics, history, religion, anthropology, cultural studies, psychology, sociology, drama, film, and visual and performing arts) and their application to medicine. Their aim is to understand the relationship between medicine and these fields and to exploit the insights they can provide into medical education and practice. The medical humanities are an important complement to the enormous body of natural-scientific information that forms the major part of medical training. Obviously medical practitioners have to acquire and master that basic scientific knowledge, but they also work in what is primarily a person-centered discipline. To prevent and alleviate the suffering of individuals, physicians must understand it not only from a scientific point of view, but also from the perspective of the patient. The medical humanities aim to explore and develop the humanistic side of medicine through literature, arts, and history. They also provide doctors with helpful perspectives on scientific knowledge of which they have hitherto been largely passive consumers by enabling them to cast a critical gaze on this knowledge and by considering the changing social, anthropological, and historical contexts of the production of medical knowledge and reflecting philosophically on its nature and significance. The medical humanities aim to deepen our understanding of the relationship between medicine as a science and medicine as a humanistic practice and thus to enrich the education and understanding of our doctors.32
An emphasis on the humanities’ methodological distinctiveness; on the membership in them of science, broadly conceived; on the theoretical complement to other parts of the scientific enterprise; and on the humanities’ practical benefits can go a long way toward vindicating the whole area of (p.47) inquiry against its more Gradgrindian critics. What it does not necessarily do is leave intact the humanities as they are currently conceived and divided. The traditional divisions within humanities scholarship are not necessarily the most conducive either to the scientific enterprise or to the broader instrumental goals I have written about here. That said, the historic disciplinary map has produced communities of scholarship with formidable records of collective achievement. Though academic managers often feel the impulse to break down disciplinary boundaries, there is always the danger that in doing so they are destroying valuable networks for collaboration and research that have evolved over time, and that new divisions will not work so well in practice.
The conclusion I should wish to reach is that the humanities need to be much less defensive than they have been. Even if we adopt a relatively austere principle of justification and eschew arguments that depend on the special civilizational value of the humanities, there are sufficient resources available, within public and political reason, to mount a defense for the place of these subjects within the academy. The humanities can help us see that the economic-growth arguments beloved by politicians, but ultimately threatening to both our well-being and that of the planet, can be challenged or supplemented by other considerations bearing on the ability of citizens to form, revise, and pursue their aims. Though the democratic-citizenship case put forth by Martha Nussbaum proved to claim a little too much, the humanities have an essential contribution to make to the democratic conversation. We do not need for all citizens to be educated in the humanities in order to play their part, but we do need the humanities to contribute to public debate and discussion in order to make all citizens aware of the full range of values and considerations bearing on public issues. Finally, the humanities have an important role to play in society more generally, both in providing distinctive forms of knowledge alongside the natural sciences and as being, in important ways, complementary to them.
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———. 2004. “Democracy Is Not Intrinsically Just.” In Justice and Democracy: Essays for Brian Barry, edited by Robert E. Goodin, Carole Pateman, and Keith Dowding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(p.48) Bate, Jonathan, ed. 2001. The Public Value of the Humanities. London: Bloomsbury.
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I would like to thank participants in the Spencer Foundation conference Values in Higher Education at Northwestern University and at a Spencer workshop held in preparation for that occasion. Megan Blomfield, Harry Brighouse, Ann Cudd, Anthony Laden, Mike McPherson, and Grace Roosevelt provided me with written comments that have been most useful in revising the text. Alexander Bird and Havi Carel also provided me with useful research materials.
(11.) In her contribution to this volume, Erin Kelly distinguishes the business, economicdevelopment, and scholarcentric models of the university. The now-dominant view in the United Kingdom represents an amalgam of the first two of these.
(13.) See, e.g., Levitt, Janta, Shehabi, Jones, and Valentini (2009).
(18.) Some readers may worry at this point that the requirement that citizens abstain from promoting their favored policy on impermissibly perfectionist grounds could mask a set of hypocritical and deceptive practices whereby arguments are advanced in one form but secretly motivated by unshareable “real” reasons; see, e.g., Stout (2004), chapter 3, for this kind of concern. But it seems to me that this anxiety that citizens might argue in bad faith is one that fails to give sufficient weight to the idea that giving reasons to one’s fellow citizens that they can reasonably be expected to endorse is itself a moral reason that people should normally attach trumping importance to.
(19.) There are more questions about the connection between the acquisition of culture and democratic citizenship and empathic imagination, which I shall note but not (p.50) probe further. These concern Nussbaum’s claims that such exposure has the positive benefits she describes, claims that rest, in the book at least, on psychoanalytic and pedagogical literature rather than on rigorous empirical investigation. Without such investigation, however, we are very much in the realm of anecdote; and, however plausible the idea, competing anecdotes and narratives can always be deployed. The members of the highly cultivated and humanistically educated German officer class of the 1930s and ’40s, for example, do not appear to have been imbued with the virtues of democratic citizenship and empathic imagination to any great degree, and they remind us that a sense of cultural superiority can also ground feelings of contempt, hatred, or revulsion toward the “other,” as Nussbaum herself is often keen to emphasize. One could also, in the light of recent psychological studies, question the importance she places on qualities of character and moral dispositions as features of the person in a democratic society. For example, one school of thought claims that character is less important to behavior than circumstance, but that we are psychologically predisposed—wrongly—to prefer character-based explanations. (Such an allegedly mistaken predisposition is at the core of the novelist’s art.) If such a view were right and conventional wisdom were mistaken, then it would undermine the case for focusing on individual dispositions as necessary for the functioning of a democratic society in favor of other determinants of behavior, such as institutional design. But for the sake of argument I grant Nussbaum’s commitments about both the importance of character and the beneficial effects of exposure to art and literature on empathic imagination and prosocial dispositions.
(20.) This is not to deny that the best teaching in the humanities can provide students with a critical take on mass culture that can enhance democracy. But I am skeptical about how much actual teaching in the humanities meets this threshold and relatively optimistic about the capacity of ordinary people to escape the condition of merely passive consumption. For some worries about how fostering a critical attitude in students can actually foster a shallow dismissiveness, see Kyla Ebels-Duggan’s contribution to this volume.
(26.) Very much to the point is the following observation from Jonathan Bate: “In the light of the recent historical developments for which ‘9/11’ can serve as shorthand, it was perhaps unfortunate that the swingeing funding cuts to higher education [in the United Kingdom] in the early 1980s fell with particular severity on supposedly marginal areas of the humanities such as Islamic studies.” “Introduction,” Bate (2001), 2.
(28.) Rawls himself seems unnecessarily hesitant on this point, conceding in “The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good” that the reasonable requirements of children’s education may approximate those promoted by the more comprehensive liberalisms, but referring to this with “regret.” Rawls (1993), 199–200.
(31.) The key text for this dispute is, of course, Jacobs (1961); but see also Brand (1994); (p.51) and the discussion of Le Corbusier in Scott (1998), chapter 4, and Scott’s discussion of practical knowledge, chapter 9.
(32.) I have been assisted in this paragraph by Alexander Bird, who has set up a pioneering program in the medical humanities at the University of Bristol. A good particular example of this engagement between the humanities and medical science is Carel (2008), a remarkable book that draws on the author’s own life. A philosopher trained in the methods of phenomenology, Carel was diagnosed with a serious and debilitating condition with a prognosis of a much shortened life. During Carel’s diagnosis and treatment, she was struck by the detached, clinical, and “scientific” approach of her doctors, which seemed to her to miss a vitally important aspect of what was going on: namely, what it is like for the patient. Drawing on the work of Merleau-Ponty, Carel writes of the importance of augmenting physiological description and clinical intervention with an account of the first-person perspective of the patient as a mode of experience and interaction with the world and other people. Recently she has been working to show how clinical practice and patient care can be improved by taking into account of the embodied nature of the patient’s experience.