Socratic citizens of the world

Cultivating Humanity
December 12, 1997

It is often said that the British university system has become like that of the United States, and in one obvious way it has. We have our own Ivy League, and we can no longer even pretend that the standards in all universities are comparable. Yet Cultivating Humanity makes American higher education seem very foreign indeed. As the full title implies, Martha Nussbaum deals only with the liberal arts, and indeed many of her examples are drawn from small private liberal arts colleges. The strangeness, seen from this side of the Atlantic, comes from the way she talks about these colleges, for all the world as if they were present-day secondary schools to be told what they are to teach. British readers may have to remind themselves from time to time that it is tertiary, not secondary, education that is under discussion.

I do not mean that there is an assumption of lower standards of curiosity or intelligence in the institutions cited; indeed the reverse is the case. But the emphasis throughout is on what must be added to the curriculum of the universities if they are to fulfil their aim, to turn out good members of a democratic country. Little is said about students choosing what interests them, and nothing about any of them becoming scholars.

The supremacy of democracy over other values is taken for granted, though a few words about how the modern American concept differs from that of the ancient world would not be amiss. (Nussbaum's heroes are Socrates and Seneca.) Her thesis is that no one is fit to be a member of a democracy unless they first become acquainted with the Socratic method of teaching and learning, and second, are equipped by their knowledge of other nations and races to be citizens of the world, which was Seneca's ideal. The consequential curricular changes must be shared by everybody in all universities, otherwise they would not be properly democratic.

The first of these requisites is straightforward. Students must learn to question received orthodoxies. They must not be passive recipients of tradition. Thus the canon of great literature must be expanded. For literature, it is argued, has a social purpose, which is to foster sympathy, and thus democratic equality, both within and across national borders. Conservative critics, such as the influential columnist, George Will, are dealt with firmly: far from undermining the western cultural heritage, they are told, such innovations (including women's studies and the study of sexuality) will enrich it, by expanding sympathy, and the imaginative grasp of other people's feelings.

Philosophy is also held, unsurprisingly, to be a good vehicle for teaching the Socratic method, and especially the philosophy of Plato (despite his being no lover of democracy). I do not dispute this, but there is a danger in teaching any branch of philosophy (such as medical ethics) in isolation, and because it is deemed to be useful. Such teaching is exposed to the real danger both of a kind of liberal orthodoxy, and to superficiality, especially where a short course is tacked on to an already full curriculum.

The programme whereby students are to turn themselves into citizens of the world is more difficult in practice even if ideologically sound. (I doubt, moreover, whether the claim to derive this ideal from the Stoics, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, is very helpful. The world, even for a Roman emperor, was a bit smaller then than it is today.) Nussbaum's proposal is that every student should take at least some courses concerned with remote countries, exotic customs and different religions. She cites the case of a successful girl graduate, sent by her firm to China, who found it difficult to adapt (though she did so in the end, and now lives in that country). She would have done better, it is implied, if she had taken a course in Chinese civilisation as part of her degree. This may or may not be true. But as far as we know, the girl in question did not know in advance that she would be sent to China. How would she have known which particular exotic culture she would be best advised to study? She could not study them all. Indeed the risk of superficiality and a kind of immovable orthodoxy is probably even greater in the case of compulsory East/West studies than of philosophy.

Nussbaum recognises this. She acknowledges that many of her proposed courses will be taught by people who do not know the Chinese language, say, or any African or Indian language. She defends this by an analogy with the teaching of classics. It is no bar to teaching Plato, she argues, that you do not know Greek. If one were to insist that only Chinese scholars should teach about China, or those who know Greek and Latin teach about Greece and Rome, then this would reintroduce the dreaded intellectual elitism, over which equality, and democracy, must prevail.

For me, doubts remain. In this country classical studies, as widely taught in secondary schools (and even in some universities) rides on the back of scholarship. Scholarship is not for every undergraduate or graduate. On this Nussbaum and I would agree. But it must be for some of them, if any of the useful courses she suggests are to be worth anything at all. The question that must be raised is whether academic elitism is necessarily an evil. I believe that it is not; indeed it is an essential part of the idea of a university. Political democracy is a great ideal, but it does not entail absolute equality, still less identity between different institutions.

It may be that Nussbaum assumes that if you want scholarship you must look to post-graduate degrees. It is a weakness of the book that this is not explained. The other weakness is the failure to consider how innovative yet egalitarian courses could be ensured in the sciences. For if democracy is the highest academic value, then this must surely be true as much in science and maths as in the arts. But then that is not what this book is about.

Baroness Warnock is a life fellow, Girton College, Cambridge.

Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education

Author - Martha C. Nussbaum
ISBN - 0 674 17948 X
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 352

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