CRF Blog

Humanities and the Arts in Crisis

by Damon Huss

On the blog for the American Constitution Society, a progressive-leaning association of legal professionals and law students, professor Martha C. Nussbaum of the University of Chicago has written an impassioned summary of her views on a contemporary crisis in education. The crisis, she writes in Education for Profit, Education for Freedom, is that “the humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world.” Nussbaum’s concerns have significant implications for civic education. She argues that the teaching of skills necessary for the sustenance of democratic self-government is waning in both the U.S. and abroad:

We should value good scientific and technical education, and I do not suggest that nations should stop trying to improve in this regard. My concern is that other abilities, equally crucial, are at risk of getting lost in the competitive flurry, abilities crucial to the health of any democracy internally, and to the creation of a decent world culture and a robust type of global citizenship, capable of constructively addressing the world’s most pressing problems. 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 the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.

The piece is a kind of précis to her book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

Others have argued that the decline in math and science education should be the greatest concern to our society. The National Math and Science Initiative, for example, describes declining enrollment in math and science courses on the college level as “one of this nation’s greatest economic and intellectual threats.” Nussbaum might not disagree, but would probably emphasize that a decline in civic skills and dispositions is at least as alarming as a decline in skills that enable profit-making in a competitive, high-tech economy.