Democracy's wake-up call

October 3, 1997

Like Socrates, our liberal arts faculties with their black, gay and women's studies are charged with corrupting the young. But, argues Martha Nussbaum, we need Socratic teaching to cultivate humanity in a complex world

In the Clouds, Aristophanes' great comedy about Socrates, a young man, eager for the new learning, goes to a "Think-Academy" run By that strange notorious figure. A debate is staged for him, contrasting the merits of traditional education with those of the new discipline of Socratic argument. The spokesman for the old education is a tough old soldier. He favours a highly disciplined patriotic regimen, with lots of memorisation and not much room for questioning. He loves to recall a time that may never have existed - a time when young people obeyed their parents and wanted nothing more than to die for their country. Study with me, he booms, and you will look like a real man - broad chest, small tongue, firm buttocks, small genitals (a plus in those days, symbolic of manly self-control).

His opponent is an arguer, a seductive man of words - Socrates seen through the distorting lens of Aristophanic conservatism. He promises the youth that he will learn to think critically about the social origins of apparently timeless moral norms, about the distinction between convention and nature. He will learn to construct arguments on his own, heedless of authority. He won't do much marching. Study with me, he concludes, and you will look like a philosopher: you will have a big tongue, a sunken narrow chest, soft buttocks, and big genitals (a minus in those days, symbolic of lack of self-restraint). Socrates's self-advertisement, of course, is being slyly scripted by the conservative opposition. The message? The new education will subvert manly self-control, turn young people into sex-obsessed rebels and destroy the city. The son soon goes home and produces a relativist argument for the conclusion that he should beat his father. The same angry father then takes a torch and burns down the Think-Academy. (It is not made clear whether the son is still inside.) Twenty-five years later, Socrates, on trial for corrupting the young, cites Aristophanes' play as a major source of prejudice against him.

Should a liberal education be an acculturation into the time-honoured values of one's own culture? Or should it follow Socrates, arguing that "the examined life" is the best preparation for citizenship? Almost 500 years later, in the very different culture of the Roman Empire, the philosopher Seneca reflected on this same contrast, creating, in the process, our modern concept of liberal education. Seneca begins his letter by describing the traditional style of education for young men, noting that it is called "liberal", (liberalis), because it is an education for well-brought-up young gentlemen, who were called liberales (free-born). This education focused on internalising tradition. But Seneca himself, he now announces, would use the term "liberal" in a very different way: an education is truly "liberal" only if it is one that "liberates" students' minds, leading them to take charge of their own thinking and to become reflective critics of traditional practices. Seneca goes on to argue that only this sort of education will develop each person's capacity to be fully human: self-aware, self-governing, and capable of recognising and respecting the humanity of all human beings, no matter what their class or rank. And only these abilities can produce a society that is not devoured by anger and hatred. "Soon we shall breathe our last," he concludes in On Anger. "Meanwhile, while we live, while we are among human beings, let us cultivate our humanity."

In the contemporary United States, as in ancient Athens, education is changing. New topics have entered the liberal arts curricula of colleges and universities: the history and culture of non-western peoples and of ethnic and racial minorities within the US, the experiences and achievements of women, the history and concerns of lesbians and gay men. These changes have been presented as highly threatening, both to traditional standards of academic excellence and to traditional norms of citizenship. Readers are given the picture of a monolithic highly politicised elite who enforce a "politically correct" view of human life, subverting traditional values and teaching students, in effect, to argue in favour of father-beating. Socratic questioning is still on trial. Our debates over the curriculum reveal the same nostalgia for a more obedient, more regimented time, the same suspiciousness of independent thinking, that finds expression in Aristophanes's brilliant portrait.

But we can defend many of the changes in liberal education as responses to the challenge posed by Socrates and Seneca. Indeed, if we hope to produce democracies in the modern world in which political deliberation is truly rational, rather than simply the clashing of various unexamined preferences in which we reason about our differences, instead of simply making assertions of personal status, we need to consider these paradigms and how they might best be embodied in higher education.

Any good curriculum must ask what a good citizen of the present day should be and should know. The present-day world is inescapably multicultural and multinational. Many of our most pressing problems require for their cooperative solution a dialogue that brings together people from many different national, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Even issues that seem close to home - issues, for example, about the family, sexuality, and children - need to be approached with broad historical and cross-cultural understanding. We make many mistakes by thinking that our habitual ways of doing things are rooted in "nature", and could not be otherwise. A graduate of a university or liberal arts college ought to be the sort of citizen who can become an intelligent participant in debates involving these differences.

Three capacities are essential to the cultivation of humanity in today's world. First is the capacity for critical examination of oneself and one's traditions - for living what, following Socrates, we may call "the examined life". This means a life that accepts no belief as authoritative simply because it has been handed down by tradition or habit, that accepts only those that survive reason's demand for consistency and for justification. Training this capacity requires developing the capacity to test what one reads or says for consistency of reasoning, correctness of fact, and accuracy of judgement. Such testing frequently produces challenges to tradition, as Socrates knew when he answered the charge of "corrupting the young". But he defended his activity on the grounds that democracy needs citizens who can think for themselves. Like a gadfly on the back of a noble but sluggish horse, he said, he was waking democracy up so that it could conduct its business in a more reflective way. Our democracies, like ancient Athens, are prone to hasty, sloppy reasoning, and to the substitution of invective for deliberation. We need Socratic teaching to fulfil the promise of democratic citizenship. For this reason, I believe that a year of study in philosophy at the university level is an essential part of an adequate curriculum. (Such requirements exist in many US colleges and universities, including all the Catholic universities.) Citizens who cultivate their humanity need, further, an ability to see themselves as not simply citizens of some local region or group but also, and above all, as human beings bound to all others by ties of recognition and concern. The world around us is inescapably international. Issues from business to agriculture, from human rights to the relief of famine, call our imaginations to venture beyond narrow group loyalties and to consider the reality of distant lives. We easily think of ourselves in group terms - as Americans first, as human beings second - or, even more narrowly, as Italian-Americans, or heterosexuals, or African-Americans first, Americans second, and human beings third, if at all.

We neglect needs and capacities that link us to fellow citizens who live at a distance, or who look different from ourselves. This means we are unaware of many prospects of communication and fellowship with them, and of responsibilities we may have to them. We also sometimes err by neglect of differences, assuming that lives in distant places must be like ours and lacking curiosity about what they are really like. Cultivating our humanity in a complex interlocking world involves understanding the ways in which common needs and aims are differently realised in different circumstances. Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius stressed that this ability was a critical part of overcoming anger and hatred: by learning to "enter into (the) mind" of another person, we discover common aims and purposes, and come to think of ourselves as limbs of a single body. But as Marcus said: "Generally one must first learn many things before one can judge another's action with understanding." In order to function as world citizens students need a lot of knowledge that undergraduates rarely got in previous eras.

It should be emphasised that gaining knowledge about other times and places need not - and should not - produce ethical relativism, the view that there are no universal ethical truths and that one's own tradition is the only available guide to moral practice. The philosophical component of the curriculum should make students capable of thinking critically about the whole issue of moral relativism; and having a sense of the reality of distant lives will also help them to pose tough questions about what human flourishing requires in different circumstances. Students who know a good deal about the history of non-western cultures will, in fact, become astute critics of some bogus relativist claims that are commonly made today, for example the claim that the East values order whereas only the West values freedom.

But citizens cannot think well through factual knowledge alone. The third ability of the citizen is the narrative imagination: the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person's story. The narrative imagination is not uncritical: for we always bring ourselves and our own judgements to the encounter with another. But the first step of understanding the world from the point of view of the other is essential to any responsible act of judgement, since we do not know what we are judging until we see the meaning of an action as the person intends it in the context of that person's history and social world. Our students should attain the ability to decipher such meanings through the use of the imagination. This is obviously only one role literature and the other arts should play in the curriculum; I do not mean to diminish their other roles. I mean, however, to insist that the arts are not peripheral to citizenship, but central.

What kinds of knowledge of the different should a good curriculum include? Clearly no undergraduate education can teach students all they should know; the aim should be to engender a Socratic knowledge of ignorance, while imparting some techniques of inquiry and a detailed knowledge of some central areas. All students should have some knowledge of non-western civilisations, their history and their achievements. What seems realistic is to require some basics, especially an acquaintance with all the major world religions and with basic elements of world history, and then a more detailed investigation in one area. A foreign language requirement is an indispensable part of this project. Even if the language selected is one that lies close to home, learning how another linguistic system organises reality differently is an essential part of learning to think about the distant.

A second type of knowledge that students need is knowledge of the history and situation of ethnic and racial minorities within their own nation. It is most important, however, that we defend this form of learning as an education for all citizens, not as a way in which minority students affirm a special identity. Courses in African-American studies, for example, are valuable for all Americans, since all Americans need to come to terms with the legacy of slavery. They should not be conducted in ways that imply that whites cannot understand blacks, or that only black instructors can teach African topics.

Students also need knowledge of the history and achievements of women. Typical curricula of the past contained gaps in this area that could not be justified on scholarly grounds. Women's studies is now a flourishing area of scholarship - although some universities have moved more rapidly into this area than others. (My own university and Oxford university are two latecomers, both just starting an effort to include women's studies in the curriculum.) Generally this knowledge can best be conveyed by integrating the study of women into the curriculum in every department, where appropriate. But specialised programmes in women's studies are an important part of this effort, since they provide a stimulus for research and course development by bringing together scholars from different disciplines who share common interests. If it should be objected that this area lacks the unity we expect from a field of scholarship, we should remind the objector that some of our most established and successful fields are also highly heterogeneous. Classics deals with two civilisations and languages over at least two millennia, combining history, philosophy, religious studies, literary interpretation, philology, history of science and medicine, art history and archaeology. We do not notice this heterogeneity because we are used to it.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, students need to learn to think well about sexuality. In previous generations, the topic was shrouded in silence. Now it is a flourishing area of scholarship in science, social science, and the humanities. We need to incorporate this new material into undergraduate teaching in many different areas. Sex is a topic of concern to all of us as citizens, in many roles. As jurors, we may be asked to reach fair and impartial verdicts in cases dealing with child molestation, spousal abuse, recovered memory, rape and sexual harassment. We may be asked to evaluate testimony on gay parenting, on the "homosexual panic" defence for manslaughter, on the battered-woman syndrome, on marital rape, on the relative claims of adoptive and biological parents. As voters, we may be asked to cast ballots in referenda that bear on the civil rights of sexual minorities in our communities. As members of professional groups, we may be asked to form opinions about what policies our group should adopt on sexual harassment, or whether spousal privileges in health care and benefits should be extended to same-sex couples. As members of religious groups, we may be asked to take part in debates over the family, women's rights and same-sex relationships. As world citizens, we are called on to discuss these issues with people from other nations, whose norms in these areas may be different from our own. The position of the world citizen in the university should be a simple one: that these choices should be made with knowledge and imaginative understanding, rather than in ignorance. This means that we should cultivate the informed study of human sexuality in courses of many kinds, and foster on our campuses a climate of reasoned debate on the controversial topics, debate in which all voices, both liberal and conservative, will receive a respectful hearing.

How are our colleges and universities doing in meeting these demands? In my study of a wide range of US colleges and universities, I have found some bad ideas; I have seen good ideas derailed by faculty tensions or, more often, by lack of funding. But I have also found, and more frequently, a large number of creative proposals that promise a rich future for democracy, if only they will continue to receive the institutional and social support they require. This support is now threatened, both by an increasing emphasis on vocational education and by a steady outpouring of mean-spirited attacks on the humanities, attacks that imply, in Aristophanic fashion, that our liberal arts faculties are a narrowminded group of radicals, bent on corrupting the young. These attacks are based on an inaccurate picture of what is happening. The real picture deserves criticism, because we should always be critical: the give and take of criticism is what keeps our institutions of higher education alive. But we should insist on describing the real picture, and we should defend the institutions that are trying to produce Socratic citizens, whose moral and political beliefs are not simply a function of talk-radio or peer pressure, who have gained the confidence that their own minds can confront the toughest questions of life. The world our students face is complex, confusing, and full of hatred. In such a world, the unexamined life threatens the health of democratic freedoms, and the examined life produces freedom in the mind.

Martha Nussbaum is Ernst Freund professor of law and ethics, University of Chicago. Cultivating Humanity is published by Harvard University Press this autumn, Pounds 17.50.

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