Review Essay

Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, Martha C. Nussbaum (Harvard University Press: 1997)

Nicholas C. Burbules

University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign


Published in the Harvard Educational Review Vol. 69 No. 4 (1999)


Martha Nussbaum is the most widely read and influential classicist writing today. She has brought the great writers of Greek and Roman philosophy alive for many contemporary readers, and her contributions to reinterpreting these sources, especially those dealing with moral philosophy, have forced a widespread reassessment of the relevance of these authors for current issues. Her use of multidisciplinary sources in her writing, from philosophy to literature to social and political theory, and her growing interest in non-Western traditions, has made her work accessible and significant to multiple audiences within and outside the traditional academy.

And so it seems that there could be no better person to take on the challenge of defending the contemporary university and the classical values of liberal education from their critics today. Nussbaum sees the university as under attack from two directions, one represented by conservative critics, such as Allan Bloom, George Will, and Roger Kimball, who accuse the university of fostering relativism, trendy "political correctness," and an ignorance of, if not downright antipathy toward, the standards of reason and the canon of Great Literature that the university, they believe, should be defending. The other threat comes from groups, including some feminists and advocates of racial and ethnic difference, who have also challenged the traditions of the university, questioning its reliance upon Western- or male-centered rationality and a canon that is insufficiently inclusive of the contributions of nondominant groups. (Pointedly, each of the groups is convinced that the university is basically dominated by the other.)

Nussbaum’s purposes are not entirely defensive, however. Her book is a forceful exposition and defense of a positive conception of liberal education, emphasizing values of Socratic reason and cosmopolitanism that are grounded in the classical origins of the Western tradition itself. She argues for the centrality of the study of non-Western cultures, of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, of women, and of the varieties of human sexuality, all as part of a truly cosmopolitan, pluralistic liberal education. The capacity of students to appreciate the experiences and perspectives of those different from themselves is intrinsic to the breadth and inclusiveness of outlook that she identifies with the liberally educated person.

Nussbaum even argues, to my delight, for the value of requiring all students to study philosophy (p. 42). It is refreshing to read an unapologetic and unflinching reassertion that liberal education within the university should emphasize the activities that Socrates so highly valued: those of challenging superficial and conventional beliefs, of upsetting the complacency of settling for conformity with what is familiar and safe, and of insisting that the unexamined life is not worth living. These are, after all, the root sentiments that attract most people to the practice of philosophy in the first place, it seems to me, and they explain why Socrates remains a philosophical hero for philosophers from many points of view who share few other positions in common.

So if it is to be said that Nussbaum’s arguments are often not very satisfying, there is a sense in which this very criticism affirms many of the values that she wants to attribute to the university. If one of the virtues of liberal education is to question even what makes us comfortable and secure, and to be willing to subject to scrutiny even those positions that may serve our immediate interests, then I take that as expressing what the Socratic approach, at a deep level, is all about. Yet it is just this, I am afraid, that Nussbaum often avoids doing in her book. At just the point where a criticism of the university might really bite, it seems, Nussbaum retreats to a surprisingly conventional recitation of the narrative the university has always given to justify itself; and in this, finally, she fails to engage what is really bothering the critics of the Right and the Left (as she characterizes them):

We must therefore construct a liberal education that is not only Socratic, emphasizing critical thought and respectful judgment, but also pluralistic, imparting an understanding of the histories and contributions of groups with whom we interact, both within our nation and in the increasingly international sphere of business and politics. If we cannot teach our students everything they will need to know to be good citizens, we may at least teach them what they do not know and how they may inquire. We can acquaint them with some rudiments about the major non-Western cultures and minority groups within our own. We can show them how to inquire into the history and variety of gender and sexuality. Above all, we can teach them how to argue, rigorously and critically, so that they can call their minds their own (p. 295).

The basic picture that Nussbaum provides of the U.S. university (based primarily on interviews and visits to fifteen diverse campuses) is of a noble institution striving, however imperfectly, to achieve worthy ideals. She begins her book with a revealing parallel, equating current assaults on the university with the satirical attack on Socrates in Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds, in which Socrates’ new "Think-Academy" is represented as betraying the values of traditional education. Socrates is portrayed in this play (and in the charges leveled against him in the Platonic dialogue The Apology) as making the young unruly and disrespectful of authority and tradition; subverting the norms of society; and being insufficiently reverential toward religious beliefs and values. Similarly, Nussbaum writes, the contemporary U.S. university is under assault from the Right (by and large critics who are outside the academy) for being similarly subversive. In the end, her defense of the university on this score is the same as Socrates’ own defense: that free and reasoned inquiry must know no bounds; that society needs gadflies, whether it likes them or not; and that religion, properly understood, should not feel threatened by the values of free thought and tolerance that the university represents.

At the same time, according to Nussbaum, the university is also under assault from the Left (variously characterized as "progressives," "relativists," "identity politics," or "postmodernists" in her book — and by and large representing critics who are inside the academy). Here her references to particular individuals and arguments are more oblique, but in a broad way she means those who doubt the core values of reason, objectivity, and universalism that undergird her normative justification of the university’s mission:

Some faculty pursue the diversification of the curriculum in a way that ultimately subverts the aims of citizenship, focusing on interest-group identity politics rather than on the need of all citizens for knowledge and understanding. Some, too, have become unjustly skeptical of rational argument, thinking of its abuses as if they were part of the essence of rationality itself….It is fashionable today in progressive intellectual circles to say that rational argument is a male Western device, in its very nature subversive of the equality of women and minorities and non-Western people. Socratic argument is suspected, here again, of being arrogant and elitist — but in this case the elitism is seen as that of a dominant Western intellectual tradition that has persistently marginalized outsiders (pp. 7, 18-19).

Between these two lines of attack, she believes, the university must articulate a conception of itself that defends the standards of reason, while remaining open to new points of view; that preserves the intellectual traditions and canons that define U.S. culture, while consciously broadening the curriculum to expose students to traditions which diverge from their own and which, in their difference, may confront students with an awareness of their own parochialism; that remain respectful and tolerant of many points of view without lapsing into relativism; and in short, that manages to prepare students simultaneously to be citizens of U.S. society, and cosmopolitans, "citizens of the world." Along the course of her discussion, she touches on several of the major issues that trouble contemporary U.S. universities: the "Great Books" debates; the tensions between promoting free speech and discouraging hate speech on campus; the proper role of proliferating Ethnic Studies areas; the call for requiring courses in non-Western studies as part of a liberal education; and the degree to which campuses have been in the past, and frequently remain, inhospitable places for racial minorities, for women, and for homosexuals. On all of these topics Nussbaum offers fair-minded and reasonable advice, but always of a nature that fits fairly comfortably within the university’s self-conception (there is an exception when she deals with religious schools, discussed later). The possibilities that there might be a real conflict between different aspects of the university’s mission, or that tensions between particularistic and universalistic values may be profound and irreconcilable, or that the well-intended promulgation of the values of Socratic reason and cosmopolitanism that Nussbaum advocates may in fact turn out to be exclusionary of participants that she wants to draw into the academic conversation, are given no serious consideration in this book. In that, she misses an opportunity to illuminate the educational problems that (in my view) we truly need philosophical help in sorting through.

Before turning to these issues, I want to give an overview of Nussbaum’s affirmative conception of the university. It is based, as I said, on two key values: Socratic reason and a respect for diversity. These are, in her view, the essential qualities of democratic citizenship, and they are the overarching purposes that liberal education is trying to promote. It is crucial to see that what Nussbaum means by the democratic underpinnings of "Socratic reason" is actually an amalgam of a range of notions, some taken from Socrates, some from the Greek and Roman Stoics, some from Madison and the American tradition of deliberative democracy, along with other sources. Nussbaum works hard to attribute these sorts of democratic sentiments to Socrates himself (at one point she refers to his "case for democracy" and calls him a pluralist at heart, which is putting it a bit strongly, I would say).

As Nussbaum knows perfectly well, the extent to which the Socrates we know (mainly as a character in dialogues written by his student Plato) can actually be called a "democrat" in any full sense of the term is, to say the least, a contested assessment. She cites the work of Gregory Vlastos in support of her view, without acknowledging that this is far from a universally accepted interpretation. There is just as strong a case that Socrates never expected all or even most citizens to be capable of, or inclined toward, the sort of rigorous and uncompromising reasoning he sought to exemplify. And Socrates’ possible connections to the oligarchy that briefly seized power in Athens and overturned democracy there are ambiguous (about Plato’s own there is no doubt: pp. 22, 26). Not much depends on trying to settle the matter here. What is revealing is that Nussbaum does little to suggest this controversy to her readers: Socrates, or better yet, "Socrates" occupies a specific rhetorical purpose in her argument, as the repository of the values of reason, critical reflection, and participatory democracy that she wants to argue liberal education should protect and promote. What troubles the reader who knows the controversy she does not tell is that to do so would introduce an element of complexity and indeterminacy in the case she is trying to make: to suggest, even, that the intellectual origins of the values of the university she is defending might be fundamentally (if unintentionally) elitist, or exclusionary, even as they proclaim themselves to be democratic and inclusive. It seems to me that in the true spirit of relentless skepticism "Socrates" represents one ought to be more willing to confront such a possibility.

On the issue of cosmopolitanism, again, Nussbaum paints us the big picture, but stops just short of the questions that might be troubling to her account. Drawing from classical authors including Diogenes and Seneca, and on to contemporary sources, she characterizes cosmopolitanism as a view of persons as simultaneously citizens of two communities: their own local and particularistic group, and humanity generally. Liberally educated persons must be able to appreciate the particular character of each sphere, and the responsibilities appropriate to each. In order for this to happen, U.S. students must be exposed to the histories, cultures, literature, and mores of other world societies and should, according to Nussbaum, learn about at least one of these societies in considerable depth, including its language. The educational benefits of doing so are both to foster a respect for diversity and to learn to see what seems natural or neutral about one’s own history, culture, literature, language, and mores from a more encompassing and reflective vantage point.

It certainly is difficult to argue against this. But the way that Nussbaum characterizes the cosmopolitan spirit, the ends she assumes it will serve, and the issues she does not broach, gradually make it clear as this book goes along that she conceives the virtue of cosmopolitanism in a very specific manner. First, she never considers very seriously that the two forms of citizenship, and the loyalty that we owe to our own group and to humans generally, may be in deep conflict. It is far from obvious that these two kinds of allegiance can easily co-exist. When she does discuss possible tensions between the two, she makes it pretty clear in each case that it is the particularistic allegiance that must give way. In fact, she suggests, although she does not provide an explicit case for it — and this is surprising, given her claims about the importance of philosophical argument — that the universal identification is in fact the supervening one (p. 59).

Second, this implicit belief in the existence of universal values and human characteristics affects her analysis of educational processes and aims. To put it simply, she believes that the main reason for studying people who are different from us is so that, ultimately, we can find out that we are all basically the same. Now, I cannot take on the burden here of trying to refute that view. But I can ask a simple question that Nussbaum nowhere considers: What if that isn’t true? This is, after all, not an a priori matter or an article of faith. It is something to be found out as we explore the world and encounter others. One need not be a "postmodernist" or a "relativist" to be troubled on this point. What guarantees that a fuller study of human diversity will lead to a finding of common human qualities, desires, and purposes? And if one does encounter an incommensurability on these points, how does one establish by argument the universality of any of ones’ beliefs and values?

Third, it is surprising to read any account of cosmopolitanism or "world citizenship" written today that does not address the conditions of economic, political, and cultural globalization that make such ideals particularly relevant now. Nussbaum begins her chapter on this topic by recounting a woman, Anna, who was transferred from her middle-management position in the U.S. to a similar position in Beijing. Once settled, she adopts a child from a local orphanage. She then must cope with a Chinese nurse who follows child care and upbringing practices that are quite at odds with her own values: the nurse believes in swaddling the child so that it cannot move, Anna wants it free to explore its environment, and so on. Anna’s mother is "appalled" at the nurse’s habits. After some friction, Anna is able to "devise some plan for the baby’s development that is agreeable to all" (p. 52). We are not told what this plan is, but it is the type of thing that a "world citizen" must learn to be able to do. This sort of neat resolution to a crisis of cultural conflict (and it the only one that Nussbaum explores in detail in the book) elides many of the difficult questions that one might think are relevant to understanding this situation. Why was Anna transferred to this post, assigned to another country, and what choice did she have in the matter? Are business workers whose affiliations with new countries are fundamentally commercial in nature really "cosmopolitans" of the sort Nussbaum has in mind — what might make their position and purposes distinctive? Since presumably the child is Chinese, what special constraints might bear upon an American raising a Chinese child, in China, with the resources to have a Chinese nurse apparently performing much of the child care for her? I raise such questions not to criticize Anna, but to point out that any complex situation in which the dual affiliations of citizenship, local and world, come into conflict is obviously going to involve a number of other factors, including matters of interest, privilege, and multiple agendas; and that therefore discussing the virtue of cosmopolitanism can’t be characterized simply in terms of being a "sensitive cross-cultural interpreter" (p. 52).

Nussbaum tends to refer to the Athenians as the first cosmopolitans, stressing the educational benefit of encountering cultures other than one’s own, causing one to reflect back on one’s own culture and assumptions. But, of course, there were other factors at work for the Athenians in such studies, including their own aspirations to empire. The commercial and geopolitical context of this renewed contemporary enthusiasm for a more cosmopolitan education cannot be separated from the particular forms and purposes it is being shaped to in universities, some of them not very compatible with Nussbaum’s aims. The benefits of, for example, understanding other cultures better can serve the interest of mass marketing on a global scale just as much, or more, than they are likely to support the goal of world peace.

At many other critical points in her discussion, just when a difficult issue or tension has been framed, Nussbaum slides past the question one wants to see engaged. There is a tension between the cosmopolitan spirit of pluralism and tolerance for diversity and the belief in universals of truth and value. What does one do in the face of others’ refusal or inability to accept one’s arguments for such universals? At what point does this become evidence to doubt whether they truly are universals? The closest Nussbaum comes to this issue is when she notes that while there are "cross-cultural moral standards" (p. 33), people may approach them or express them in different ways.

She dismisses the concern of Allan Bloom and others that "critical scrutiny of one’s own traditions will automatically entail a form of cultural relativism that holds all ways of life to be equally good for human beings" (p. 33). By inserting the word "automatically," she makes the concern look silly. But what if, one might ask, in practice such teaching does have this effect? There is a tension between acknowledging the sometimes sordid parts of one’s own society and its history, and in maintaining a spirit of patriotism and nationalism. The danger, on this view, isn’t that of "automatically" fostering relativism, but of weakening a particular conception of citizenship in the service of another.

Similarly, she also dismisses the prescriptions of Bloom and George Will about protecting a canon of Great Books (though she twice cites E.D. Hirsch favorably, who makes much the same point: pp. 35, 69). In the end she argues for characterizing these, not as Great Books, but as "Some useful and nourishing books that are likely to help you think for yourself" (p. 35). And she does argue for adding to the curriculum works that represent nondominant groups within the U.S. as well as non-Western traditions. To Bloom and Will she replies, "The move to include noncanonical works and to scrutinize the ways in which such works construct desire and recognition does not necessarily lead to ‘delegitimizing Western civilization,’ as George Will fears" (p. 106, italics added). I think you may be beginning to see the pattern here.

Nussbaum says that "comparative critical study, by removing the false air of naturalness and inevitability that surrounds our practices, can make our society a more truly reasonable one….For attaining membership in the world entails a willingness to doubt the goodness of one’s own way" (pp. 55, 62, italics added), but sees no friction between this position and statements such as,

We have not produced truly free citizens in the Socratic sense unless we have produced people who can reason for themselves and argue well, who understand the difference between a logically valid and logically invalid argument….[P]articipants in such arguments should gradually take on the ability to distinguish…what is parochial from what may be commended as a norm for others, what is arbitrary and unjustified from what may be justified by reasoned argument (pp. 36, 62, italics added).

At a more practical level, Nussbaum addresses the issue of undergraduate courses being taught by teaching assistants instead of faculty. Having noted that the University of Pittsburgh Philosophy Department is one of the nation’s finest, she explains that the requirement for students to take a philosophy course "puts them in contact with some of the best young instructors in the nation" (p. 43). By this she means that many of these courses are taught by graduate students, not tenured faculty; but not to worry, because these are "often the stars of the profession’s next generation" (p. 44). And she repeats the point a page later, talking about a similar course at Harvard, taught by graduate students who are "very dedicated…the leaders of the field in the next generation" (p. 45). Once again, this avoids the real issue, which is not the qualifications or quality of teaching assistants (they may in fact put more time and energy into their teaching than faculty would); what frustrates the students in these classes, of course, is something else. They come to a university because of the reputation of the faculty, but often have very little opportunity actually to interact with them. Nussbaum never addresses this problem, and puts conventional university practice in the best possible light.

At a much more serious level, and perhaps most revealingly, Nussbaum also wants to insist that the Socratic values of logical analysis, the search for the "objective," and reliance upon argument and empirical evidence, poses no threat to religious belief. Her most strained discussions, it seems to me, are when she claims that "There is no contradiction between governing one’s most personal choices in the faith to which one adheres and learning to argue in a Socratic manner with one’s fellow citizens" (p, 37). In her review of U.S. universities, she includes Belmont, a Baptist school in Tennessee; Brigham Young, the Mormon school in Utah; and Notre Dame. While she certainly is willing to be critical of these schools when they violate the standards of critical reason, open inquiry, and tolerance for diversity that she places at the heart of a liberal university (she devotes an entire chapter to an incisive analysis of their successes and failures in this regard), she has no doubt that they can, and should, have exactly the same commitment to these values as do secular schools (p. 258).

But it is not difficult to see the ways in which this cannot be so, because the forms of Socratic skepticism she champions are a threat to religious belief. This is not to say that faith-bound scholarship or teaching are incapable of rigor and critical analysis; but clearly there is a point beyond which that sort of questioning does not, and cannot, proceed. Similarly, the spirit of cosmopolitanism and tolerance for diversity may be difficult to reconcile with religious beliefs that argue for a primary affiliation with those who share one’s faith and a righteous judgment of — or desire to convert — those who do not. And, finally, the belief in universal truths and values derived from reasoned argument that Nussbaum expresses throughout this book may rest uneasily with religions that do not subscribe to these same beliefs and values.

What I am getting at here is rather straightforward, and perhaps apparent by now: conservative, religious, and tradition-bound world views are right to be suspicious of "liberal education," and perhaps especially that of the type Nussbaum advocates. Her defense of the liberal university — like Socrates’ own defense in The Apology — actually reasserts the very things that these critics fear. When Socrates compares himself to the gadfly that must awaken a lethargic horse, he understands full well what an insult this is to the society around him (is this the answer of a democrat?). Cosmopolitanism is in tension with patriotism and nationalism. Socratic reason is in tension with faith and respect for authority. A pluralistic curriculum is in tension with the values of tradition and the preservation of a canon of literature and beliefs that all students will come to share.

On the other side, Nussbaum’s response to the "postmodernists" and the "identity politics" crowd is also a confirmation of their concerns. As I have discussed, she spends a great deal of time arguing forcefully for the inclusion of world literature and culture, for the value of African-American studies and other similar programs that explore ethnicity and race, for the importance of Women’s Studies and the impact of feminism on the academy, and — most intriguingly — for adding a requirement for studies of gender and sexuality to the curriculum. But this apparent openness is qualified: she has no patience with what she calls "the pretenses of fashionable authorities" (p. 41). These studies are truly legitimate in the liberal curriculum only when they echo the values of Socratic reason and tolerance that she is advocating here. As she puts it at one point, they must be "responsible" (p. 180), by which she means: "a scrupulous regard for evidence and argument….to look for truth in all its forms, using arguments that have been carefully sifted for bias….[and] rigorous theoretical argument and extensive empirical reading" (pp. 178, 191, 210).

Here we see most clearly, I think, the limits of the cosmopolitan spirit Nussbaum advocates. She is remarkably offhand in distinguishing the type of Feminist Philosophy course she thinks does belong in the university (pp. 204-205) from the kind she thinks does not (p. 48). She throws off the line that perhaps Foucault does deserve to be studied in philosophy departments (p. 40) but that Derrida "is simply not worth studying" (p. 41). She notes that the literary theories of the deconstructionists can perhaps provide some grist for philosophical debates over relativism, "in which literature teachers can observe the way these issues are handled by philosophers" (p. 109), but does not extend this view of interdisciplinarity to the possibility that philosophers can have anything much to learn from the "outpouring of bad philosophy" coming from "our newly theory-conscious departments of literature" (p. 109).

In all of this, I think, we return to the narrow conception of philosophy that drives Nussbaum’s argument. By equating philosophy with the defense of Socratic reason, and by refusing to consider that this mode of analysis may not provide the universal discourse for resolving disagreements even within this society, let alone on a global scale, Nussbaum ends up providing, on the whole, a conception of liberal education that diverges very little from the secular university’s present self-conception. By using the critics of Right and Left as foils of extremism, she situates her allegiance to critical reason and cosmopolitan pluralism as the sole alternative to their "excesses and errors" (p. 7). In doing so, I have suggested, she avoids all the truly difficult challenges her stance must confront. It is all too easy to label the critics of her particular conception of logic and argument as "relativists," and it is less than forthcoming to suggest that, while these "relativist" positions should certainly be represented in classes, it can really only be for the purpose of refuting them. And it is deeply disturbing to consider who might be left out of the universalism she advocates.

One last example, by way of illustrating this point. Nussbaum notes, quite forthrightly and with sincere concern, that

In twenty years of teaching in departments of philosophy and classics I have taught only two black graduate students and have had no black colleagues….very few black students take nonrequired courses in philosophy (p. 152).

She puzzles over this, considering (and rejecting) the view of the Committee on Blacks in the American Philosophical Association that this may partly be due to required courses in formal logic that "black students do not feel comfortable with" (p. 177). But having rejected this explanation for why so few African-American students choose philosophy as a field (an explanation provided, please note, by qualified African-Americans within the field of philosophy), she remains silent on any alternative explanation. Now, on Nussbaum’s own account, this should be an urgent, pressing issue: If it is true that philosophy of the sort practiced in philosophy departments is uncongenial to the outlook, concerns, and thought processes of African-American students (or any other significant group in society), then this constitutes a serious impediment to the kind of cosmopolitanism she wants to promote. Why are these students so severely underrepresented in the field? At what point does a consistent pattern of selection, and the rationale provided for those choices by the persons making them, need to be taken seriously as counterevidence to the assumption that "Logical reasoning…comes naturally to human beings" (p. 36)? Nussbaum takes any doubts along these lines as expressing the racist idea that "black students cannot think logically" (p. 177). But perhaps the onus of the debate is not on African-American students, but on what philosophers think it means to "think logically," or on the assumption that this method represents the only valid basis for arguing and adjudicating different views about truth and value, or on the possibility that the putatively universal truths explored in philosophy departments may not in fact speak to the felt concerns of many individuals and groups. One need not be a "relativist" to think that.

And so I feel a deep ambivalence about Martha Nussbaum’s book. It is one of the most serious and scholarly attempts to reply to the accusations of the Right that the U.S. university is a haven of political correctness and knee-jerk trendiness. And Nussbaum does want to acknowledge and respond sympathetically to some of the concerns of the "postmodern" Left (the way in which power distorts the articulation of ethical and social norms (pp. 39-40), for example, or the need to see sexuality as a "construct," not a natural given (pp. 226-238)). As she turns to her positive account of the university, she writes a great deal about the importance of argument as a way of resolving debates. But surprisingly there is very little actual debate and argument in this book: there is little examination of the kinds of tensions, if not contradictions, between the principles she advocates; there is little exploration of real cultural conflict and what to do about it; and there is little consideration of how some of the structures and standards of the U.S. university may themselves be promoting a kind of parochialism of outlook (for example, for all of her advocacy of cosmopolitanism, Nussbaum nowhere in this book discusses even a single university from another country as a potential exemplar, or point of contrast, in its curriculum and practices). Nussbaum identifies, I think rightly, that the core value of the cosmopolitan spirit is "a willingness to doubt the goodness of one’s own way" (p. 62). I wish there had been even more of that spirit in this book.




Acknowledgement: This essay has benefited from exchanges with Scott Johnston and Pradeep Dhillon, two colleagues from the University of Illinois.