Shape for knowledge

October 17, 1997

MARTHA Nussbaum provides a welcome challenge to the vocational trend in higher education (THES, October 3). However, if what she recommends can be summed up as liberal education for citizenship, we must ask about the "city" or state to which this citizenship relates. While she clearly has the United States in mind in part, the main emphasis seems to fall on "the world". But the world is not a state. "Citizenship" is being used in a metaphorical sense here.

One wonders whether there might not be some discrepancy between what is good for particular states and what is good for the world. In short, is the university a national or an international institution, and if it is both how are the tensions that arise from this to be dealt with?

A second issue relates to the notion of liberal education. Something that may surprise British readers is the degree of compulsion implied by her curricular proposals: for example that all students must do a year of philosophy. While I would agree that this might be desirable in principle, one can imagine the response of students press-ganged into it. And how can such a proposal be justified in liberal terms? This is not impossible, but it is tricky.

The final issue relates to the nature of the critical attitude that Nussbaum believes universities must encourage. At one point she says that the examined life is a life "that accepts only those (beliefs) that survive reason's demand for consistency and for justification". But how can we examine and justify all our beliefs? Examining any one always involves reliance on others. Also, does not the critical attitude she recommends lead to scepticism, and is that good for the city or the world? This is an issue that is very much on the agenda, and not only at the instigation of religious fundamentalists.

Relatedly, Nussbaum seems to downplay the problem of dogmatism among some on the left, emphasising more that on the right. But the difficulty is, surely, the question of what are the proper limits to criticism, and how discussion should be pursued in a university context and elsewhere.

Nussbaum mentions women's studies courses in a generally favourable manner, and it is important to do that, but there are also problems in this field and others centring on the issues of criticism and dogmatism. Nussbaum seems to skate over problems that we need to address if we are to come to sensible and effective conclusions about the shape a university education ought to take.

Martyn Hammersley. School of education. Open University

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