To measure, for profit (1): education and democracy

19 Jun

“The numbers tell the tale”: this inveterate saying, which I addressed last year on this blog and whose practical consequences I sometimes come across in working life, it’s not irrelevant to philosopher Martha Nussbaum‘s arguments in her thrilling book Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities.

Dont’be fooled by the book’s subtitle nor by my own academic background in, and partiality to the Humanities: Nussbaum’s passionate plea for a much broader commitment to higher education concerns not only social sciences as well, but university as a whole. «The pressure for economic growth has led many political leaders in Europe to recast the entirety of university education – both teaching and research – along growth-oriented lines, asking about the contribution of each discipline and each researcher to the economy» (p. 127). Just think about the times you have heard politicians’ speeches or have read ‘authoritative’ newspapers’ editorials bragging about the university curricula which can be regarded as economically relevant, and therefore worth the investment of (public) funds.

nussbaum2011Photo from Nussbaum’s personal page at the University of Chicago.

One thing for which I am most grateful to my university studies is that they helped me open up my mind and develop as a critical thinker: critical thinking and broad-mindedness being not exclusive to specific disciplines (no matter how lucrative these might be) but a key rationale of higher education. «Distracted by the pursuit of wealth, we increasingly ask our schools to turn out useful profit-makers rather than thoughtful citizens. Under pressure to cut costs, we prune away just those parts of the educational endeavor that are crucial to preserving a healthy society. What will we have, if these trends continue? Nations of technically trained people who do not kwow how to criticize authority, useful profit-makers with obtuse imaginations» (pp. 141-142).

critical-thinking-deficitPhoto from Political humor page.

As with most good books, and all the more so if you are a reference citations-addicted librarian, Not for profit provided also a good starting point for further readings: while I am still waiting to read one of Johann Gottfried von Herder‘s Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität (English translation is currently on loan at the UvA-library; more in a forthcoming post), and while Christopher R. Browning‘s Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland gave me additional insight on the relationships between the perpetrators of crimes against humanity and their inconspicuously normal social background and life, it is with a 2009 New York Times article by Harvard University President’s Drew Gilpin Faust’s that I wish to end appropriately:

«Higher education is not about results in the next quarter but about discoveries that may take — and last — decades or even centuries. Neither the abiding questions of humanistic inquiry nor the winding path of scientific research that leads ultimately to innovation and discovery can be neatly fitted within a predictable budget and timetable. […] Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to».

P.S.: it is by sheer chance that professor Nussbaum is giving a lecture this coming Saturday in Amsterdam. The Dutch translation of her book The new religious intolerance: overcoming the politics of fear in an anxious age will be presented on juni 22nd at 8pm at De Nieuwe Liefde.


One Response to “To measure, for profit (1): education and democracy”


  1. Summer break (and readings) | bibliocw-soc - 10 July 2013

    […] far as higher education and democracy are concerned, I think that few people better than French historian Marc Bloch embody the idea of […]

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