I can recall my modern British history professor explaining that until the 20th century, science was not commonly part of the curriculum in the elite British schools like Eton and Rugby. It was seen as too common to study practical matters, I imagine, and students of such rarefied institutions continued in the medieval tradition of classical languages and ancient texts. A learned man, it held, was less interested in the immediate than in the eternal.
Our 21st century mindset is a millennium away, and while the Victorians might seem out of touch, we might have overzealously replaced the ancient ills with new ones. In an inversion of the old days, the halls of the modern school are filled with demands for immediacy. Students, either by training or natural disposition, increasingly demand to know the relevance of the subjects studied, asking ‘Why do I need to know this?’ – as though knowing is a burden. And teachers, especially younger ones, keen to appeal to the ego of their charges, owing to the natural ease in teaching happy students, reinforce the idea that the immediately relevant trumps the sometimes ambiguous and complex. Guidance counselors will tell students that while the humanities are engaging and ‘fun’ (or worse, ‘easy’) they aren’t as practical as enrolling in a mostly math and science timetable – or, even better, business courses.
In the time before business schools, captains of industry studied literature, history, and even poetry. Even today, many Canadian banking executives, where an intellectual tradition runs deep, often pursued academic degrees over bachelors of commerce – before perhaps entering the business world finishing school, the MBA program. TD Canada Trust, one of Canada’s biggest banks, is run by Ed Clark, a man with a Ph.D. in economics called on routinely by government to weigh in on policy matters. (It is no surprise that TD was the best-capitalized bank in Canada during the latest bank crisis, and one of the most solid banks in the world. The demands for critical thinking are everywhere, especially in the business world. The cost of turning our backs on wisdom is apparently quite great.)
A recent article in the Globe and Mail profiles Martha Nussbaum, University of Chicago philosopher, who has argued in her recent book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, that in our demand for business and practical courses, we are losing an essential role of education: producing wise, learned, critical minds.
Here is an excerpt of her interview with John Allemang of the Globe.
John Allemang: How can the study of the humanities improve our political system?Martha Nussbaum: The first thing you get from the humanities, when they’re well taught, is critical thinking.Philosophy in particular can play that role, not just in universities but in schools as well. Thinking about the logical structure of an argument is something we know children can do quite young.The second thing you get from the humanities is a greater understanding of the world, its different groups of people, their histories, the way they interact.The third thing you get is the training of the imagination.You can’t have a democracy when people don’t learn to put themselves in the shoes of another person, who can’t think what their policies mean for others.
JA: Yet the governments prefer to fund technical education – which tells me that practical, marketable skills are considered more valuable in our democracies.MN: People may believe that, but they haven’t thought hard enough.First of all, we badly need people who can think critically about authority and tradition.And that’s what democracy has always required, ever since the time of Socrates – not just accepting what’s passed down from some kind of authority, but thinking critically about it, examining yourself and figuring out what you really want to stand for. And then having debates in that spirit of respectful critical inquiry with other people – you can’t have a democracy that’s run simply by sound bites and cultural authorities. And I’m afraid that’s what we’re increasingly slipping into.Yes, we call our governments democracies, but I think they’re functioning badly now. The atmosphere of vilification is so bad that good people steer clear of the political process. And if they get in, their lives are made miserable.
JA: Do you think there’s something inherently anti-democratic about the study of science, technology, engineering?
MN: Not at all, if they’re taught well with an attention to the basic structures of thought and inquiry.But what we’re getting now is the demand for a quick fix for economic problems using highly applied technical skills but without the focus on basic scientific education – learning about argument, scientific method. So it’s that debased version of science that’s particularly dangerous.
I think Socrates – executed by the Athenian democracy for his spirit of inquiry – might quibble with some of what Nussbaum says here, but the point remains: our Western democratic tradition requires intelligent discourse, critical thought, and the possibility of informed dissent. Our rush for the exits within places of contemplative thought into places of technical absorption is to be lamented. There will always be those who pursue the beautiful and the philosophical – but as a culture, we would be wise to guard against the temptations of an unambiguous, technical world, where the rewards go solely to the immediately practical.
I emphasize immediate because the humanities produce structures with greater practicality than many of the arms of science. Is our democracy not practical? Is our legal system not practical? Did the Anglo-American Enlightenment, the fruits of which – including the US Constitution and Bill of Rights – not increase human happiness more than most engineering projects? Are we not people, first and foremost, who require historical insight and philosophical leanings, to organize ourselves for our own betterment and equality? And if those things are not done, what hope do science and commerce have?
It seems obvious that the humanities and science are cross-pollinating organisms. Surely it is not coincidental that the United States, the nation of Jefferson and Franklin, of Lincoln and Whitman, is both the most scientifically and commercially productive land on earth. Nussbaum argues that even those of us not actively part of the production of the humanities, those of us without the title professor, can still lead imaginative, rich intellectual lives: ‘You just have to figure out how you in your particular situation are going to do it. It might be through being a critical voice in your law firm. It might be by writing short stories if you can carve out a space. It might be through being a productive alum of your university. Or it might be by bringing up children who can think critically.’