In her book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum observes “…the humanities are widely perceived as inessential, so it seems fine for them (the university departments) to be downsized, and for some departments to be eliminated completely.” This, she argues, is a serious threat to a functioning democratic society. Without people who have studied language, history and culture, we’ll attempt to operate in a world without an understanding of how people should relate to each other—that is, as equals, each having worth, dignity, and depth. Without that, what are we doing?
Studying the humanities, she goes on to say, equips students to see how other groups “of intelligent human beings cut up the world differently, how all translation is imperfect interpretation” which “gives a young person an essential lesson in cultural humility.” There’s an ingredient it seems the world could use more of: cultural humility.
Dr. Nussbaum distills her recommendations about what schools should do to address this crisis-in-progress to seven items. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you all seven, but here’s my personal favorite: “Vigorously promote critical thinking, the skill and courage it requires to raise a dissenting voice.” Imagine if, in the last decade or so, we’d had vigorous critical thinking at work in business leadership, combined with the courage to dissent. Would someone have seen, and been able to tell us about, economic disaster in the offing far enough in advance to do something about it? One part critical thinking, one part exceptional math skills, one part fortitude, and I’m left to wonder: The liberal arts to the rescue?
Without respect and democratic equality at the core of our business and social being, we’ll find ourselves operating with only short-term gain and easy returns in mind.
Restoring the humanities to education in healthy doses should be done for all the reasons Dr. Nussbaum states, but I don’t believe it will happen because it should happen. We’re not a nation doing what it should do, even if we could agree on such a thing. Restoring the humanities to education will happen when the collective impression about the humanities—they’re inessential, a luxury, irrelevant—changes, and that will happen when business leaders understand there’s a hard dollar return on developing a literate, analytical, creative workforce, which comes from a humanities education. There is a return on investing in the humanities. That—and only that—will tip this in our favor.