Nussbaum on Liberal Education and Democracy

Lecture Supplement of IDS 6937 on July 1, 2004

     Copyright © 2004 Bruce W. Hauptli

The “culture wars” in higher education for the past three decades, have been a reaction to postmodernism.  Most postmodernists have pursued “liberal” initiatives championing liberation, emancipation, the end of colonialism, etc.  As we have seen, John McGowen contends that the shift from “modernism” to “postmodernism” has encouraged a shift in “cultural politics:”

...the New Left and the liberation movements it inspired…insisted that cultural practices—common linguistic usage, media images, educational curricula and techniques, for example—were crucial sites of oppression and of potentially transformative struggle.1

This change has set the scene for what some call “the culture wars” in contemporary America.  In her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education, Martha Nussbaum maintains that one effect of the change in cultural politics has been an attack (from the postmodern left) on the very notions of logical and critical reflection:

some left-wing opponents of Socrates …attack…logic: they charge that the central forms of logical argumentation don’t suit the minds of women, or minorities, or non-Western people.2

As we can see, Nussbaum thinks that this is “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

     Of course, the other “warring party” in the “culture wars”—a conservative one—has held that we must cleave strongly to the traditional liberal arts tradition—one which is strongly premised on transmitting the core cultural values which we have been discussing in our study of the history of liberal education.  Here we have calls for education in “the virtues,” “a return to the historical classics,” and the call for governing boards and trustees to become more involved in the general education and curriculum for undergraduate students.

     Nussbaum, as I have said, is trying to be sensitive to the “postmodern critique,” while retaining the positive elements of the liberal education tradition.  She is “taking” neither side in the “culture wars,” but, rather, trying to revise the notion of a liberal education in light of the postmodern critiques.  She maintains that:

although these views [the rejections of logic noted above] are sometimes put forward by people who wish to deny full political equality to minorities or to women, their influence in the academy derives from the fact that they are also put forward in a progressive spirit, as if we cannot help disadvantaged groups to make progress unless we recognize the “fact” that logic itself is patriarchal or a tool of colonial oppression.  But we do not respect the humanity of any human being unless we assume that person to be capable of understanding the basic issues of consistency and validity and the basic forms of inference.  We sell that person short as a human being unless we work to make that person’s potentiality for logical thought into an active reality.  Such criticisms typically show ignorance of the logical traditions of non-Western peoples and a condescending attitude to the logical abilities of women and racial minorities.3

Similarly, in his “Afterword: Pragmatism, Pluralism and Postmodernism,” Richard Rorty endorses the sort of orientation Nussbaum pursues, championing what he calls “philosophical pluralism:”

insofar as ‘postmodern’ philosophical thinking is identified with a mindless and stupid cultural relativism—with the idea that any fool thing that calls itself culture is worthy of respect—then I have no use for such thinking.  But I do not see that what I have called ‘philosophical pluralism’ entails any such stupidity.  The reason to try persuasion rather than force, to do our best to come to terms with people whose convictions are archaic and ingenerate, is simply that using force, or mockery, or insult, is likely to decrease human happiness.
  We do not need to supplement this wise utilitarian counsel with the idea that every culture has some sort of intrinsic worth.  We have learned the futility of trying to assign all cultures and persons places on a hierarchical scale, but this realization does not impugn the obvious fact that there are lots of cultures we would be better off without, just as there are lots of people we would be better off without.  To say that there is no such scale, and that we are simply clever animals trying to increase our happiness by continually reinventing ourselves, has no relativistic consequences.  The difference between pluralism and cultural relativism is the difference between pragmatically justified tolerance and mindless irresponsibility.4

Nussbaum’s book tries to envision a “pluralistic” liberal education, and tries to show how it both connects with the liberal arts tradition and how it is extremely important for democracy, while avoiding relativism and offering an argument about the importance of such an education for democracy.  To see this argument, we need to look carefully at a number of passages in her book:

10 we need Socratic teaching to fulfill the promise of democratic citizenship.
19 In order to foster a democracy that is reflective and deliberative, rather than simply a marketplace of competing interest groups, a democracy that genuinely takes thought for the common good, we must produce citizens who have the Socratic capacity to reason about their beliefs.  It is not good for democracy when people vote on the basis of sentiments they have absorbed from talk-radio and have never questioned.

27 The case for preferring democracy to other forms of government is weakened when one conceives of democratic choice as simply the clash of opposing interests.  It is very much strengthened by conceiving of it in a more Socratic way, as the expression of a deliberative judgment about the overall good.  Socrates prefers democracy because democracy is noble, and he thinks it noble because it recognizes and respects powers of deliberation and choice that all citizens share.

218 Democratic choice need not be understood as the aggregation of uncriticized preferences, and most theorists of now do not so construe it.  The construe it, instead, as a more reflective exercise, in which we attempt to ascertain which among our preferences are conducive to the general welfare.  Feminists are asking, in effect, for this more reflective democratic choice-making.

30-34 Four characteristics of Socratic Education:

it is for every human being, it should be “suited to the pupil’s circumstances and context,” it should be pluralistic (“concerned with a variety of different norms and traditions”), and it requires ensuring that books don’t become authorities.

295 We do not fully respect the humanity of our fellow citizens—or cultivate our own—if we do not wish to learn about them, to understand their history, to appreciate the differences between their lives and ours.  We must therefore construct a liberal education that is not only Socratic, emphasizing critical thought and respectful argument, but also pluralistic, imparting an understanding of the histories and contributions of groups with whom we interact....

26 It would be a bad thing to follow the example of Plato, concluding that most people cannot govern themselves.  But to follow the example of the historical Socrates will help us fulfill our capacity for democratic self-government.

29 According to the Stoics, critical argument leads to intellectual strength and freedom—by itself a remarkable transformation of the self….

33 There is a widespread fear—reflected, for example, in the argument of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind—that critical scrutiny of one’s own traditions will automatically entail a form of cultural relativism that holds all ways of life to be equally good for human beings and thereby weakens allegiance to one’s own.  This was the deep fear, too, that lead Athenians to charge Socrates with corruption of the young, and led Aristophanes to associate him with father-beating.  But of course this is not what Socratic scrutiny implies.  Rather, it implies that we should cling to what we can rationally defend, and be willing to discover that this may or may not be identical with the view we held when we began the inquiry.
40 Acknowledging the contributions of language and the human mind invalidates a simpleminded type of empiricism but leaves Socrates on his feet.  We need not forgo the aspiration to truth and objectivity; we need only conceive of these goals in a nuanced way, taking account of the shaping role of our categories.  Socrates himself made no appeal to truths that transcend human experience, and yet he held that the pursuit of ethical truth is essential to full humanity.

59 But the Stoics’ basic point is more radical still: that we should give our first allegiance to no mere form of government, no temporal power, but to the moral community made up of all human beings.  The idea of the world citizen is in this way the ancestor and source of Kant’s idea of the “kingdom of ends,” and has a similar function in inspiring and regulating a certain mode of political and personal conduct.  One should always behave so as to treat with respect the dignity of reason and moral choice in every human being, no matter where that person was born, no matter what that person’s rank or gender or status may be.  It is less a political idea than a moral idea that constrains and regulates political life.

62 ...attaining membership in the world community entails a willingness to doubt the goodness of one’s own way and to enter into the give-and-take of critical argument about ethical and political choices.  By an increasingly refined exchange of both experience and argument, participants in such arguments should gradually take on the ability to distinguish, within their own traditions, what is parochial from what may be commended as a norm for others, what is arbitrary and unjustified from that which may be justified by` reasoned argument.

85 Marcus Aurelius insisted that to become world citizens we must not simply amass knowledge; we must also cultivate in ourselves a capacity for sympathetic imagination that will enable us to comprehend the motives and choices of people different from ourselves....

109-110 The really grave cause for concern in the current teaching of literature, however, is not the presence of defective arguments, which can easily be criticized.  It is, instead, the prevalence of an approach to literature that questions the very possibility of a sympathy that takes one outside one’s group, and of common human needs and interests as a basis for that sympathy.  The goal of producing world citizens is profoundly opposed to the spirit of identity politics, which holds that one’s primary affiliation is with one’s local group, whether religious or ethnic or based on sexuality or gender.  Much teaching of literature in the current academy is inspired by the spirit of identity politics.  Under the label “multiculturalism”—which can refer to appropriate recognition of human diversity and cultural complexity—a new antihuminist view has sometimes emerged, one that celebrates difference in an uncritical way and denies the very possibility of common interests and understandings, even of dialogue and debate, that take one outside one’s own group.

118 Nussbaum discusses two “descriptive vices:” “...descriptive chauvinism...consists in recreating the other in the image of oneself, reading the strange as exactly like what is familiar.  This vice is very common in teaching in the history of philosophy.  Historians of ancient Greece thought, especially those drawn to the ancient Greeks by an interest in the philosophical problems of the historian’s own era, very often leave to one side what they regard as alien, representing the Greeks as very like nineteenth-century Englishmen, or today, twentieth-century Americans.”

123-124 ...descriptive romanticism [is] the expression of a romantic longing for exotic experiences that our own familiar lives seem to deny us.  This vice consists in viewing another culture as excessively alien and virtually incomparable with one’s own, ignoring elements of similarity and highlighting elements that seem mysterious and odd.

131 She discusses three “normative vices:” “...normative chauvinism....[where] the evaluator judges that her own culture is best, and that insofar as the other culture is unlike it, it is inferior.”

134 ...normative Arcadianism....[where the “other” is seen as having] many of the features associated with images of Arcadia in pastoral poetry.  It is a green, noncompetitive place of spiritual, environmental, and erotic values, rich in poetry and music, and lacking the rushed, frenetic character of Western life.

136 ...normative skepticism....[where] the inquirer simply narrates the way things are, suspending all normative judgment about its goodness and badness.  This position is very different from toleration.

138 The best way to begin avoiding these pitfalls [the descriptive and normative vices] in teaching is to think in terms of common human problems, spheres of life in which human beings, wherever they live, have to make choices.

203 What is indoctrination, and how is it different from regular instruction?  Indoctrination…is characterized by three features: the major conclusions are assumed beforehand, rather than being open to question in the classroom; the conclusions are presented as part of a “unified set of beliefs” that form a comprehensive worldview; and the system is “closed,” committed to interpreting all new data in the light of the theory being affirmed.


1 John McGowan, “Postmodernism,” in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism, eds. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1997).  Accessed on-line at: on 06/17/02.  Emphasis added to passage.   Back

2 Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1997), p. 38.  Emphasis added to passage.   Back

3 Ibid.   Back

4   Richard Rorty, “Afterword: Pragmatism, Pluralism and Postmodernism,” in his Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin, 1999), pp. 262-277, p. 276.   Back

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