On the Value of the Humanities: Martha Nussbaum and John Armstrong

In recent articles published in The Australian, philosophers John Armstrong and Martha Nussbaum make the case for the value of the humanities and for the need to speak to a mass audience about this value. Nussbaum, a professor at the University of Chicago and author of the recent book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, makes the case that the humanities are more important than ever. The ideal liberal democratic citizen is independent and critically-minded, empathetic, and knowledgeable about global issues and cultures, all skills and traits the humanities foster. Nussbaum argues that because of this, a liberal education is vital to democracy:

“…liberal education promotes understanding across the different sectors of society, since all students have some studies in common. It refines the ability to think critically and examine the arguments of politicians, which keeps them accountable, and promotes a civil and reasonable style of debate.

It also promotes the cultivation of the imagination, a natural ability but one that we often use narrowly, within a small circle. To learn to think about the lives of people in other racial or religious groups requires education, and that sort of education is essential if social problems are to be handled well.”

Armstrong, a professor at the University of Melbourne, emphasizes the need for humanities professors to stop speaking to one another and to start speaking to the public in general about this value. “The unintended consequence of increasing professionalisation of the humanities allows senior figures to address the concerns of other senior figures, like in the sciences. But this means setting the wrong goal; what academics are rewarded for is the esteem of their own cohort,” Armstrong says. “If you believe something is important you should try to talk to everyone; the humanities don’t belong to elites.” While he acknowledges the value of specialized research in general, he also claims “it is fatal if it becomes the core idea. In the long run, if humanities are to be important they must win in the marketplace.” One way the humanities can go about doing this is to ask bigger questions and communicate those questions with the larger public: “In principle, humanities could be bearers of knowledge for the whole society. One of the big things they could accomplish is to help people think about issues that have meaning and importance.”

Read the full articles on Nussbaum and Armstrong in The Australian.

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