Martha Nussbaum Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Women's Rights, Religious Freedom, and Liberal Education: Conversation with Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics, University of Chicago; September 14, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Your career, just the little bits that we've talked about, strikes me as offering us a lot of thought about how students might train for the future -- the kinds of curriculum, the kinds of world views that they should have. I know you've worked a lot on this. I have a book here called Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Talk a little about that. In the brief time we have we can't cover all that you covered, but what are the central features of an adequate preparation for a future that reflects both these insights that you've offered us about those things that emerge out of the American tradition but is also sensitive to the very great diversity out there in the world?

This is a book about higher education in America, and it's about the liberal education part of it, which is something that I think we're lucky to have, because most nations don't have that in their university system. They just go in and study one thing. But we have an opportunity, where at an age when young people are already pretty independent and pretty sophisticated, to give them a general preparation for citizenship and life.

My question was, focusing now on the role of the humanities and the social sciences (because I think other people can talk better than I can about the science part), what should that involve? I argued that there were three abilities above all that we need to cultivate to be adequate citizens of this very interlocking and complicated world. The first is the Socratic one: the ability to examine your own beliefs and ask what are your reasons for believing what you believe. That's essential for reasoned public culture, for a culture where it's not just sound-bites on talk radio, but it's serious deliberation and reasoned debate.

Then, learning about other countries, the whole "citizen of the world" part, which means a lot more knowledge than people used to get, than I got, about non-Western cultures. I want to include in that the knowledge of at least one foreign language, because even if it's, let's say, French or Italian, you still learn from that how another group of people sees the world and how difficult it is to translate that so neatly into your own language.

I also think you need to learn about minorities in your own country, so I devote some time to women's studies, African-American studies, studies of human sexuality.

Then the third one, which goes closely with the second, is the cultivation of the imagination. It's not enough (although you have to do it), to learn historical facts and facts about economics. You need to be able to think what it might be like to be in a position different from your own so that the arts, not just literature but also drama, also dance, music -- these have a big role in cultivating the sort of person who's prepared to go out into the world and think well about these problems.

I did this for higher education simply because that was what I knew, and all these debates were raging at the time about it, but now I want to return to it again and write something about earlier education, because these things are increasingly in jeopardy all over the world, the things I care about. People are so eager for success in the global market that they want kids to learn what will enrich the nation and everyone is talking about technology education now, and science education. I don't think these are bad things, but I think they're just not sufficient.

Certainly in India it's gone very, very far. For parents, their glory will be if their child gets into the Indian Institute of Technology and Management. They'll be ashamed to have a child who's an artist, or a writer, or a humanist. And that part, even the critical thinking part, is sorely lacking, because kids are being stuffed with all the things they need to pass these exams and not taught to think for themselves. I think in the U.S. this is happening. When we hear all kinds of people in our leadership talking about education, and certainly preparing reports about it, it's all about science and technology, nothing about humanities and art.

So, I'm getting more and more into this, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities has produced a very good report that I've been advising on about the complex set of skills that kids really do need. Of course, they're focused on higher education too, but it has to begin earlier if people are to be adequate citizens by the time they get to college. So, this is an important thing to harp on, and I'm getting more and more worried that we're going to have nations of docile engineers who won't know how to examine the claims of a political leader.

In India the state that has particularly gone down this road is the state of Gujarat, where kids for generations now have not learned much critical thinking and they're stuffed with this rote learning, and that is the state that's had the largest amount of religious violence. There's not enough public criticism in the state of the leadership, although plenty of criticism from outside and national media. The education system is part of the problem.

People have to learn to be critical and to do it respectfully and publicly, and only then will we have the kind of journalism and the kind of political culture that we really need.

One final question. You have assumed a role as a public intellectual and one has to comment on the poor state of that role in our country today. This affects our public debate on global issues, it affects our debate on education, and so on. You're unique in the sense that you still bring the thoughtful reasoning that you employ in your field. Talk a little about that. What can we do about that public discourse? Is it training people more in philosophical ways of thinking and introducing a program like you've just described? What can make the difference so we elevate the discourse?

I think it's very, very difficult in this country. The first thing we ought to notice is that we're pretty isolated in this regard. I've just come back from Holland, and in Holland philosophy is big news in the popular culture. There's a popular magazine, "Philosophy," that presents accounts of issues for the general public -- it's not a gossip column magazine. I gave a Dutch translation of one of my books, and of course the very fact that a book of philosophy would be translated into Dutch when anyone who's an academic reads English is itself quite interesting. Well, people are all coming to these lectures. They want to know about the philosophical issues.

My belief is that human beings are not that different from one country to the other. Issues about grief and mourning, issues about social justice -- these are issues that people really care about. In America they don't get the access to discussion about these issues because the media have decided that there just isn't interest in them. Now why is that? I think part of it is increasing corporate control of the media. The fact is that even when [journalists] want to do something more in the public interest, CBS is owned by Viacom, etc. So, you get all of this top-down control which produces a focus on short-term profit and therefore on sensationalism. Major national newspapers have certainly gotten worse. I think the New York Times Book Review and the New York Times op-ed page have gotten measurably worse in the last couple of years. The Post is much better but that's always been America-focused, so it's not one of my main venues. I find that it's through the book review only that you can get out to the general public and even there, the literary editor of the New Republic, who is brilliant, has fewer pages now because of financial issues than he had before.

So, where can one get access to this public? I think if young people thought that there was a way that they could get their thoughts about issues into print -- I mean, my graduate students would work much more on that. But since it's so hard, then they have almost an incentive not to do it because it also jeopardizes their career in philosophy. I'm the chair of the committee on public philosophy in the American Philosophical Association and I know that there's tremendous passion for these things and there are a lot of good efforts at the community level that are going on that we don't hear about. There are a lot of philosophy cafes, public discussions, local newspapers, local TV. And then of course there are people like you who do things that have a larger audience, and I would also mention the show "Philosophy Talk" that John Perry and Ken Taylor do out of Stanford. That's a wonderful program. So, there are rays of hope, but it is so much easier for me to talk to the press in India, in Holland, in Italy, in Germany, than it is in my own country, and I think that's pretty weird. We are a nation that has always had suspicion of intellectuals, and that's part of it, but I think the media are to blame.

On that note, we hope that more people will read what you have written and we hope to have you back at Berkeley to give another lecture and at that time we'll do another interview and talk about another dimension of your work.

That would be wonderful.

Thank you very much.

Thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

© Copyright 2006, Regents of the University of California

To the Conversations page

To the Globetrotter Research Galleries: Women Role Models for the New Millennium, Human Rights, and Higher Education: Choices, Goals, and Leadership

See also the interview with Amartya Sen (2005): "Reflections on Theory in Social Science" (available in video only)