This paper is in response to: Muir, J. V. (1999). Nussbaum Cultivating Humanity: a classical defense of reform in liberal education. Cambridge, Mass, and London, Harvard UP. 1997. Pp. xii+ 328.£ 17.50/$26.00. 067417948X. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 119, 197-198.
Nussbaum is a philosopher who earned her PhD from Harvard University and was a professor of philosophy and classics at Harvard before leaving to teach at Brown University. Nussbaum has published several books since the mid-1980’s and has focused much of her attention on the unequal opportunities of women. The book being discussed here is her book Cultivating Humanity, which starts with her passionate arguments for a liberal education. Her thoughts are based on several notable ancient philosophers from different eras, including: the Stoics, Socrates, Cicero, Diogenes, and Marcus Aurelius.
Nussbaum begins her book with some views of Socrates and how important education is in a democracy. One of Socrates quotes pertains to how ludicrous it would be to not find the best teachers possible for children (p. 27). She then returns to this point frequently in her opening chapters, mentioning several universities (University of Nevada Reno, St. Lawrence University, and University of California Riverside) and teachers (Richard Lowy, Eve Stoddard, Grant Cornwell, and Krishna Mallick) who are making a difference in the lives of students. She shares two different definitions of the word liberalis, and works with the definition that refers to freelike. The definition of freelike is one that gives the students the responsibility to question society’s norms and traditions (p. 30).
To guide this questioning Nussbaum discusses four key claims about education: that education is for everyone, should be unique for each student, involves several different norms and traditions, and emphasis on not being limited by what is bound in a book (pp. 30-33). These structures guide Nussbaum over the first three chapters of her book and she returns to all of these items at different times.
One of the ideas for getting more than what is listed in a book comes from St. Lawrence University and the very unique and dynamic program that they have established. Not only are the teachers who will be teaching these courses (spread through all different parts of the curriculum) experts in their field, but they have also spent significant time living in the culture that their class is based on (p. 80). St. Lawrence University also ensures that student are learning about cultures and traditions unfamiliar to most students by focusing on two areas, Kenya and India. The courses also have a strong base in philosophy, giving them a Socratic foundation.
The University of Nevada Reno had faculty designing a course based in philosophy, but with the goal of creating a world citizen. These professors worked to create a program with three different points of focus: courses that were multicultural with a wide scope of content, the courses would be taught by faculty strong in their respective discipline, provided strong faculty development, and allowed for reflection of methodological and pedagogical issues that came up (pp. 73-75). These efforts also go back to the Socratic claims that Nussbaum discusses early on, that education is for everyone and that this education is pluralistic in nature, and the books were not the only information for the students to have access to.
As students move through these different programs they are put into situations where they are forced to question their beliefs. No longer were students allowed to hold onto a belief because this was something that they grew up with, or were told by their parents. These were situations created so that the students had to defend their position, or give reasons that a student on the other side of an argument would use to defend that argument. Students had to defend positions that were opposed to ones they had held since they were small children. Going through these courses allows students to begin understanding that people can think differently about things, and that it does not mean you have to be bitter enemies when you disagree.
Nussbaum ends with the importance of the arts: the written word from plays, stories, poetry, along with artwork and interpretive dance. These forms allow the person reading or watching to have emotion for what they are seeing. These emotions give people the opportunity to see a powerful and different point of view. Nussbaum says that art has the important roll of “challenging conventional wisdom” (p. 99) and is influential in creating a strong democracy. By viewing these different things and feeling empathy for the characters, there can be robust debate and discussion about what was seen. These discussions then help to create stronger positions for each individual as well as allow people to see differences, which will help to create a world citizen.
Nussbaum makes some very great points about creating a world citizen, a person who may not know about a particular culture, but has the tools to be open to what he or she learns and discovers. Having a liberal education can provide a person with the tools to develop a strong logical argument for their position, not just holding a position because everyone else thinks the same thing. This can also create a situation where a student who is not well grounded could be swayed to take a position just because it sounds good. Socratic method is a great tool, but it is truly something that every student should experience in college? I do really like what I read that St. Lawrence is doing with their program, this would be something that I would have benefited from when I was working on my undergrad. Learning about different cultures needs to be interesting and thought provoking. Having a teacher who has spent time living in a particular culture adds an element that cannot otherwise be part of class.
Analytic Note 1 w/Corrections
Johnson is a sociologist who travels all over the United States, working with people and corporations to understand the significant social issues that our culture/society continues to allow to happen. His book Privilege, power, and difference (2001) presents his thoughts on how the systems present in our culture continue to keep white people in positions of power and privilege. He discusses two different short-term approaches, the tin cup and the business case, that people and businesses use to move into eliminating inequality. The tin cup appeals to a persons decency, you should do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do. The business case is where corporations try to keep talent by having quick hitting programs designed to entice people into staying. He indicates that these are not ideal and the lasting impact is minimal (p. 75). Johnson frequently talks about how the “individual system” and the “social system” when making his arguments about privilege and power. The individualistic system has the view that if a person is not intentionally hurting someone, they are not part of the problem. The social system is created by the individuals and the choices that people make as they move through multiple layers and paths in their lives. Johnson argues that these two systems work in concert with several other systems to create class systems and through these, oppression of those on the bottom by those on the top.
We learn how to behave in these systems from popular culture and limited views of reality. He points out on several occasions that “not knowing” or “remaining silent” is the same thing as condoning terrible acts of oppression and racism. Humor and brushing off situations that are sexist or controlling are just as bad as being silent. Having the courage to take an “alternative path,” (p. 134) not laughing at insensitive humor, or standing with someone in a time of need are suggestions for change. Johnson believes that the type of change needed will be slow in coming, but through everyone contributing what they can where they can, positive change will happen.
In several places Johnson talks about the individualistic view that most people take when they are asked about oppression and privilege. If you are not hurting others or showing prejudice you are part of the problem (p. 85), telling us that sitting on the sideline or standing in the crowd is not an excuse. We all need to be aware of the divides of our society and how to close those divides in our own ways. As consumers we continue the cycle of oppression and privilege, buying food, clothing, or cars – often manufactured by individuals who are paid such a small amount that they are bound to a class that will never break out of oppression. This is something that is going to happen, we need clothes and cars, but is there a way to show that we disapprove of the manufacturing process? Johnson ties these types of examples all through his writing – situations that we encounter everyday where the dominant group does small things to remain dominant. Our culture is full of images that show white men with privilege and power. White people do not have their “own” movies and white artists not being identified as white, are examples of norms for our society that allow the dominance of one group over another.
Everything in our society is perceived as so normal, that when something different happens in relation to diversity, it is a big deal. When people being oppressed march and point out the injustices that they are living through, those with privilege become defensive. They don’t want to lose what they have. There are also the little things that happen in everyday life that promote oppression and privilege of one group at the expense of another. Brushing an incident off like it is not a big deal (to those in power), laughing at an insensitive remark, or opening the door for women (p. 116) are all different ways to subtly demonstrate power. I struggled with the opening the door for women part – isn’t this an act of kindness and generosity? I certainly do not mind when someone holds a door open for me, it doesn’t matter to me if that person is a male or female. However when you look at how Johnson describes his “tin cup” (p. 72) it fits right in. Showing that women need men to open the door for them because they are unable to do so for themselves.
There were several places that Johnson showed me where my place in society was and how I had done nothing to earn it. I was born a white male, I am married to a woman, I am a Christian, and I am not disabled (at the moment). I had never spent any time thinking about these things and how ignorant I was about oppression and privilege. I considered myself a good guy, I don’t intentionally try and humiliate anyone, I try very hard to get along with all people I come across and I don’t say much. Johnson has challenged my thinking with this book, by telling me these attitudes support the current status quo. In the final chapter where he gives such practical advice for creating positive change, he gives me hope for self-improvement. Johnson gives several ideas that are strikingly simple to start using every day. The easiest one for me is by setting the example (p. 134), I can let others see my behavior and actions and through consistency, have a positive impact on those around me. He also shares stepping off of the path of least resistance (p. 142) will help. This can be difficult to do because I naturally look for the path of least resistance. I can work on being a better listener (p. 139), this class (and this book) has me trying to pay attention to talking over people. I can start to withdraw from some of those places where I am unnecessarily silent (p. 144). Those times when there is an off color joke, or outright racism, to speak up and to notice those aspects of my life. I can also support those who step off of the path of least resistance and recognize how difficult it is for them to do that, but to also recognize that doing so leads to necessary change.
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