n+1 review of Nussbaum


From an n+1 review of Nussbuam’s Not for Profit

Postindustrial economies rely on exactly the kinds of skills humanities departments teach: intellectual flexibility, detachment, an understanding of pluralities or difference, creative skepticism. This is scarcely news to anyone 
anymore. It’s a litany familiar from every tech-sector TV ad of the last twenty years. And Nussbaum is absolutely right to trace these business-world desiderata to the educational theory of Dewey, which encouraged collective endeavors (playing together), practical problem-solving (tactile play), and group creativity. “Innovation,” Nussbaum puts it succinctly, “requires minds that are flexible, open, and creative; literature and the arts cultivate these capacities.”

The review continues:

Active cultivation of useful intellectual qualities — not, it should be noted, instruction in that all-too-troubling cognate, culture. This argument of Nussbaum’s steers entirely and successfully clear of the implied elitism of “culture”; anyone who calls the book elitist simply hasn’t read it. The problem is that this business-friendly argument sits uneasily next to her broader argument about alterity and sympathy. And in the gap between the two arguments lies the humanistic dilemma. Do the humanities teach “skills,” or do they lead us to critique the instrumentality of skills-as-such? Do they trouble our relation to economic activity, or do they equip us to be ideal technocratic employees? Picture, for a moment, a good student raised in a Dewey model. (Disclosure: I have children being educated, right now, in “progressive” schools on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which rivals Chicago’s Hyde Park as the American educational milieu most saturated in Dewey’s ideas. Not coincidentally, these were also the places Dewey lived and taught the longest.) This student is a good collaborator; she listens to others but offers her own solutions; she does not form cliques, but is socially adept enough to embrace difference on its own terms; she looks for practical solutions that her entire group could embrace. She is, in one way, the ideal of democratic citizenry. She is, in another way, training to become a management consultant.

Now picture one kind of “bad” student. This child is obsessive, inflexible, a bad listener. Prone to daydreaming, preferring her own company, idiosyncratic in her tastes, she is a solitary, possibly discontented child. In one way, she is a classroom problem, with disorders of attention or attachment. She is also an eccentric; an artist; perhaps a “genius”; in any case, an economic burden, a proto-elitist, with the capacity for generative unhappiness. One might go so far as to call her a natural humanities major.

These are caricatures, admittedly, but they embody real-world judgments constantly being made in schools and businesses, and they illuminate the gap in Nussbaum’s book. One part of Not for Profit, centering on an ethics of sympathy and alterity, suggests that the humanities contest the notion of “profit”; another part, centering on “skills,” suggests that even those things putatively not for profit are ultimately, for smart business managers, highly profitable. This may be less a conceptual confusion than an audience problem; Nussbaum’s book is aiming for a larger audience than most academics could ever reach. (The “Public Square,” a Habermasian fantasy, is its imprint.) It might be a tactical effort to outflank the enemy, to sell ethics to humanists and skills to gatekeepers of budgets. It is, I think, entirely possible that Nussbaum is being remarkably canny. It is also possible that she has restated, rather than resolved, the contemporary quandary of humanists.

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