Reading: “Not for Profit,” Part One

Recently, I bought a copy of Martha Nussbaum’s relatively new book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, as an echo-chamber kind of not-so-guilty pleasure. Published in hardcover in April 2010 and about to be issued in paperback in March 2012. (Not for Profit was published within Princeton University Press’s The Public Square series.) The book’s title and subtitle caught my attention because of my beliefs that teaching critical thinking skills to young people is essential to their someday leading thoughtful and hopefully interesting lives and that heavy engagement with the arts and humanities is one vehicle for that kind of teaching. As I considered buying it, I asked myself, Is she likely to make assertions in this book that I will agree with? Yes, probably. Is her book likely to enhance my understanding of what I already believe? Again, probably, and that’s why I wanted to read it. Everybody likes it when smart people have ideas similar to their own!

When the book arrived in the mail, I took a look at its stark and matter-of-fact cover, read the front flap of the dust jacket first, and immediately took note of this passage among the copy:

Anxiously focused on national economic growth, we increasingly treat education as though its primary goal were to teach students to be economically productive rather than to think critically and become knowledgeable and empathetic citizens. This shortsighted focus on profitable skills has eroded our ability to criticize authority, reduced our sympathy with the marginalized and different, and damaged our competence to deal with complex global problems.

The passage struck me because, as a teacher myself, I worry when I hear anyone make statements implying that educational goals should be geared primarily toward the attainment of some career. I see it differently: the omnipresence of our multi-faceted liberal-arts education system, which requires courses in math, science, social studies, English, PE and Health, and self-determined electives proves that we value raising our children to be well-rounded people who have a more extensive understanding of the world than simply how to do one specialized occupation that earns them money.

Now, to be clear, I sincerely want for all young people to have jobs in the future that will provide them a solid economic foundation, but education should be more than just job training. While I sympathize with the immediacy that I sense often from students and their parents about the difficulties of college admissions and the instability of the job market, we all must care more about the knowledge and experiences that can lead to living a good life than about the grades and test scores that signify potential job opportunities. I would argue that with the former comes the latter, but not necessarily vice versa.

I also wanted to read Not for Profit, in part, for some self-affirmation. As a writer, editor and arts educator, I coordinate and oversee a magnet-school program that is intended to nurture, guide and mentor a small number of high school students who express an interest in developing themselves into literary writers. However, I find that most of my graduates do not go on to college majors in anything related to creative writing, almost all of them citing the desire to have better economic opportunities than a writer typically has. Some do go into film, wanting to write screenplays, also citing that they see better economic possibilities in that industry. Some brave ones fess up as seniors that they never really had any intention of becoming a writer, but simply wanted the prestige of a diploma from a magnet school, in order to go to college and have better economic opportunities. Whatever any given student’s (or parent’s) motivation for attending an arts program then steering away from an arts-related college major and career may be, lying at the bottom of that pool of discarded or purported dreams is my long-term effort to make those dreams come true. I spend years with my students, working as hard as I can to give them what they have asked me for. That part of me wanted to read Martha Nussbaum’s book because the description of it declared what I have long declared to many a student and parent: the rewards of a career in the arts and humanities are significant, whether or not they are lucrative.

At this writing, having read only the foreword by Ruth O’Brien and the first chapter, my understanding of the mission statement of the book is clear. O’Brien writes, “Nussbaum reminds us that great educators and nation-builders understood how the arts and humanities teach children critical thinking that is necessary for independent action and for intelligent resistance to the power of blind tradition and authority” (xi). As The Public Square series editor, O’Brien’s obvious support of the overall aim of the book seems abundant: “Nussbaum undercuts the idea that education is primarily a tool for economic growth” (xi). That word “undercuts” implies a chopping off at the knees, a meaningful move to “kill it before it grows,” as Bob Marley sang. This seems very much like an idea that needs to be discussed in the public square.

In her first chapter, “Silent Crisis,” Nussbaum begins immediately decrying the trend toward moving education’s chief methods and goals toward meeting the needs of businesses and economic growth. She cites examples of these changes, which are happening on both macro and micro levels, including an explanation of the content of the Spellings Report published during the George W. Bush administration and anecdotes about university and school administrators. The chapter makes several significant assertions, and chief among seems to be this idea that the humanities enhance our lives our lives by improving our ability to empathize with each other, to regard each other as equally human rather than as “a mere useful instrument or an obstacle to one’s own plans” (6). We become a community, not by simply living near each other, but by communing, by finding common ground and working toward a common good.

Among her other assertions, I found another that I’m quite fond of pointing out: “Education does not take place only in schools” (8). Parents not only influence their children’s ability to learn at school, but also their children’s understanding of why they go to school. When parents focus their admonitions on having good or bad grades, in order to get into college and get a job, children take from it that what matters is grades. Children learn at school, but they also learn at home, and one thing that they learn at home is how to perceive what they learn at school. This narrow grades-centered vision thus portrays some subjects, the ones taught in schools but not related to that child’s own goals, as pointless. The logic becomes evident in common statements – I’m not going to be a historian, so why do I have to study history? – with the underlying rationale that what doesn’t relate to our money-earning potential must be irrelevant.

So what are these positive influences of the humanities in our education system? As the term implies, the study of the humanities isn’t about money, but about our common humanity. Nussbaum writes,

These abilities are associated with the humanities and the arts: the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a “citizen of the world”; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person. (7)

It is this empathy that is so integral to all of us living together – the refusal to think not in economic terms, but in human terms. Furthermore, that ability to think critically allows us to question foolish notions and to expose them as foolish, for everyone’s benefit. We may be competing for the dollars out there, but in the grander scheme we are truly all in this together.

One of the most difficult ideas for Americans to reconcile is the chasm between our nation having a democratic government and a capitalist economy. Living in a democracy means that we believe all people have the rights to participate in governance and to equal access to the government’s power. However, living in a capitalist economy means that we understand that the strongest, richest, most powerful and sometimes most ruthless people thrive. The empathy that Martha Nussbaum describes underpins our democratic ideals and flies in the face of our capitalistic notions, with her idea that education will teach us to care about more about each other than about wealth.

As an arts and humanities educator with some personal stake in this debate, my most vehement objection to a career-path understanding of education’s purpose and potential revolves around my understanding of what tremendous value the arts and humanities have. I know what some people are missing when they shut Shakespeare or long-form journalism or art museums out of their lives, and it makes me sad for them. If all we are going to learn is how to earn money, what will we do with the money once we have it? Anyone who watches TV, goes to the movies, reads books or magazines, listens to music, browses websites, or buys a product based on its eye-catching graphically designed packaging is spending their time and money on the arts and humanities!

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Not for Profit, and  It’s not a very long work; short of the end notes and index, the body of book is a little over 140 pages. I’m going to write more as I read through and finish parts of the book. Later in January, look for “Reading: ‘Not for Profit,’ Part Two,” which will discuss chapters 2, 3, and 4, and “Reading: ‘Not for Profit,’ Part Three,” which will discuss the final portions of the book.

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