Reading: "Not for Profit", Part Three
In Chapter 5, “Citizens of the World,” Martha Nussbaum reminds us that we are now connected to each other globally, which she believes necessitates a change in world view from the nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries to a more cooperative concept that sounds a lot like late-20th century multiculturalism:
The world’s schools, colleges and universities therefore have an important and urgent task: to cultivate in students the ability to see themselves as members of a heterogeneous nation (for all modern nations are heterogeneous), and still more heterogeneous world, and to understand something of the history and character of the diverse groups that inhabit it. (80)
And why do students (and the rest of us) need to understand this? She writes shortly thereafter: “Knowledge is no guarantee of good behavior, but ignorance is virtual guarantee of bad behavior” (81). If I understand her point, then she is asking all of us what we want the world to be, now that technology and transportation have enable and/or necessitated our connections. No longer can we take solace in the old adage: “History is written by the winners.”
I remember teaching a Russian foreign exchange student several years ago who explained to me quite seriously that Russians had invented the television and that Americans had stolen it and taken credit for it. Of course, my first inner response was, “That’s absurd. Your government lied to you, and you believe them.” But after thinking about it for a little while, I began to wonder . . . what is the truth? My first inclination is to believe that Americans are the wildly innovative people that our common cultural ideas say we are. But if her version is the truth, then I’m the one who has been duped— and how would I ever know? I wouldn’t, and I can’t. But I’m glad that Russian girl said to me, because it made me question more than just who invented the television.
Nussbaum writes, near the end of her fifth chapter, this solid summative statement:
Responsible citizenship requires, however, a lot more: the ability to assess historical evidence, to use and think critically about economic principles, to assess accounts of social justice, to speak a foreign language, to appreciate the complexities of major world religions. (93)
That’s asking a lot of an American, but those are things that many people in other countries around the world already do. This chapter made me think about Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and about Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, two works that present and highlight alternative narratives about cultural domination by focusing on the perspective of the dominated.
Chapter 6, “Cultivating Imagination: Literature and the Arts,” deals heavily with why young people need to be encouraged to be imaginative, which can be done through the kinds of activities that involve literature and the arts, e.g. making up stories and recreating items into new items. Nussbaum begins here with the basic premises that “a child who knows how to do things for herself does not need to make others her slaves” and “that total control is neither possible nor good” (97). Being able to empathize with other human beings, to imagine what the lives and feelings of others might consist of must be accomplished in order to have a society that cooperates. She writes that what begins in small children as “play” continues in older children and adults as the arts.
Her discussion leads me directly to something I face constantly as an arts educator: the idea that what does not earn money is not valuable. I hear parents express fears and hopes about their children’s futures, and many of their worries center on the perceived lack of economic possibilities of a career in the arts or writing – many of them don’t know any artists, or only know people for whom art is a hobby, so their logic follows that no one can make a living in arts and literature. Consequently, what doesn’t earn money must not be pursued . . . I worry desperately when I hear that kind of thinking, and even more so because I know those parents are instilling those ideas in their kids, effectively nullifying their curiosity about life and replacing it with the idea that we are purely economic beings.
I am sorry to end on this note, but by Chapter 7, “Democratic Values on the Ropes,” I was ready to be done with Not for Profit. Through the first six chapters, she had made her point, and although it was all valid information, this further piling-on was getting old. Given the chapter’s title – and if you have read my entries about the book thus far – I don’t need to tell again about her grim assessments, but for the sake of being thorough here: a valuation of the humanities seem to be disappearing from university curricula and from mainstream culture, in favor of science, technology, and other job-related subjects, but we do need the humanities in order to preserve the culture feature of respect for human dignity. There, I said it . . . Amen.
However, in this last chapter, Nussbaum for the first time in the book does some things that I found questionable. I agreed (from experience) with her statements that “faculty who cannot fill vacancies become overworked and are unable to do their job well” (124) and “for example, by teaching large courses without sufficient critical engagement with students and without enough feedback on student writing; too often, faculty allow regurgitation to lead to success” (124). Yet, later in the chapter, she seems to attack classroom teachers, first for high rates of absenteeism in some states – an assertion that she does not back up with proof – and then insinuates that some teachers set themselves up with after-school gigs as paid private tutors by teaching poorly during the school day (139 – 140). I’m sorry but I can’t let that one go . . . Being a public school teacher myself – an arts educator and an English teacher – I was with Martha Nussbaum almost the whole way through the book, but four or five pages from the end, she has that brief but underhanded assault on teachers. Regarding her private-tutoring comments, anyone who gets into public education with an agenda of profiteering would be an absolute idiot, and the results of not teaching (on purpose) all day would be nerve-wracking: massive numbers of discipline problems and massive levels of administrative oversight for failing test scores! Furthermore, many teachers have families at home; how many teachers does she think want to spend more time at night with the same students while neglecting their own families and personal lives? I found that short barrage of comments to be absurd, especially from someone who had seemed so sharp and astute up to that point.
Nussbaum also pulls President Obama into her line of fire by using one brief quote by him, in which he is praising Singapore’s education model, trying to make it appear that he is not the kind of leader who favors a human development paradigm (138). The man constantly testifies to value of human dignity over concerns of wealth, and I found that pointed jab, using one out-of-context remark, to be a little much. Sure, is President Obama concerned with having the economy prosper and having young people find jobs after graduation? Certainly! But to lump him into the kinds of uncaring, profit-driven government thinking she has already decried came off as disingenuous.
Despite the unhappy ending, I enjoyed reading Not for Profit and got a lot out of it. Almost all of her arguments made a lot of sense, and the explanations behind the assertions provided solid backing. I hope some educational administrators are reading this book . . . because it’s true that human learn or live or work solely for money. Life is too wonderful for that.
If you would like to read more responses to Not For Profit, listed below are some that I read after finishing the book and writing these articles:
“Not for Profit: Six Questions fro Martha Nussbaum” by Scott Horton (Harper’s)
“Books Briefly Noted: Not for Profit“ from The New Yorker
“On Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit“ from net critiques by Geert Lovink (German)
“Not for Profit, Eh? Hold On There, Martha Nussbaum!” by Thomas Farrell on opednews.com