Nussbaum, Martha

Assigned: Nussbaum, Martha C. From Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, from “Introduction” and from Chapter 3. (2138-50). Also read the editors’ introduction (2136-38).

From Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1997)

From Introduction. The Old Education and the Think-Academy

1. On 2138-39 (“Our campuses are producing citizens…”), Martha Nussbaum opens by raising the question of “the relationship of a liberal education to citizenship” (2139). How does she describe the classical roots of this question and of liberal education itself? How does she assess the current state of liberal education in the United States? How does she define the term “liberal education” (2139)?

2. On 2139-40 (“The classical ideal of the ‘world citizen’…”), in what two ways, according to Nussbaum, can we understand the terms “world citizen” and “cultivation of humanity” (2139)? What is the difference between the two views, and what primary similarity do they share? Furthermore, what is the first among the “three capacities” that Nussbaum identifies as being necessary to the cultivation of humanity at present? What does this capacity entail—what responsibilities does it place upon the individual learner and citizen?

3. On 2140 (“Citizens who cultivate their humanity…”), what is the second of the three capacities that Nussbaum identifies as critical to the cultivation of humanity in the modern world? How does this second capacity respond to the “inescapably international” experience of living in contemporary times? In what sense does Nussbaum’s commentary here cut against what are usually called in popular discourse “identity politics” (i.e., the notion that we are members of a restricted group first and foremost and that our identity is based on belonging to that group)?

4. On 2140-41 (“But citizens cannot think well on…”), what is the third of the “three capacities” that Nussbaum identifies as critical to the cultivation of humanity? In what sense might this third capacity be called imaginative empathy? To what extent does it involve making judgments about other people and their actions, and what prerequisite must be met, according to Nussbaum, before any such “active judgment” (2141) may responsibly be undertaken?

5. On 2141 (“Intelligent citizenship needs more than…”), Nussbaum says that “Scientific understanding” is also vital in addition to literature and the arts if people are to cultivate their humanity as fully as possible, but restricts herself to discussion of the humanities since that is the area of study she understands best. How does she further explain the limitations she has placed on the present study, and how does she also demonstrate an awareness that the classical tradition in which she is grounded is by no means the only one adequate to the task of fostering true understanding and the individual’s development into a “world citizen”?

From Chapter 3. The Narrative Imagination

6. On 2141-42 (“The world citizen needs knowledge of…”), What defense does Nussbaum make of the idea that literature is an important ingredient in a person’s quest to become a “world citizen” (2142)? According to Nussbaum, what abilities do the arts help individuals cultivate that are vital to the maintenance of democracy? In particular, what makes literature such a fine component in humanities education if the aim is to encourage a civic-spirited and cosmopolitan populace?

7. On 2142-43 (“To begin to understand how literature…”), how does Nussbaum use Sophocles’ play Philoctetes to illustrate the “sympathetic vision” (2143) she says is the goal of liberal education? How does the attitude of the Greek soldiers in the play (as opposed to their commander, Odysseus) demonstrate the necessary empathy and good sense that are required?

8. On 2143-45 (“Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man…”), in what way, according to Nussbaum, does Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man help teach people (and presumably white Americans in particular, given the novel’s context) about their “failures of perception and recognition” (2143) with regard to race, social class, and other issues central to democracy? What makes the novel’s protagonist invisible to those around him? How does Ellison’s novel convey his own sensibilities about that invisibility? What did Ellison himself say about the link between “the novelist’s art” and “the possibility of democracy” (2144)?

Fancy and Wonder

9. On 2145-46 (“When a child and a parent begin…”), how does a child’s engagement with even a simple nursery rhyme like “Twinkle, twinkle little star…,” according to Nussbaum, help the child develop what she calls a “narrative imagination” (2145), or what a critic from an older generation, Lionel Trilling, referred to as a “liberal imagination” (2146)? In Nussbaum’s view, what important things are children learning about themselves and others from this nursery rhyme and other simple works of fiction? For example, how does fiction help to instill respect for the interiority of other people—for the things one can’t see just from looking at them?

10. On 2146-47 (“As children grow older…”), according to Nussbaum, what happens when children are asked to read more complex material than nursery rhymes and other simple stories? What new capacity develops within them, and why? How does this new capacity also entail “a sense of one’s own vulnerability to misfortune” (2146)? Why is this additional sense, according to Nussbaum, so vital to a person’s ability to play a constructive role in society? Finally, how does the imaginative and sympathetic capability that reading complex literature encourages help young people to recognize not only their similarities with others but also the ways in which the feelings of others may remain opaque, unavailable even to sympathetic attempts to understand them?

World Citizenship, Relativism, and Identity Politics

11. On 2148-49 (“The really grave cause for concern…”), in what way, according to Nussbaum, is what she calls “the spirit of identity politics” damaging to “[t]he goal of producing world citizens” (2148)? What view does identity politics, as she views that phenomenon, encourage instead? How, for example, might someone who promotes an identity-politics-based version of multiculturalism characterize the value of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man? In what very different way does Nussbaum explain the value she finds in Ellison’s novel? Finally, since Nussbaum asserts that antihumanist identity politics proponents favor a very different understanding of democracy than their humanist opponents (such as Nussbaum herself), how does she describe and analyze the difference and its implications for the future of American democracy?

12. On 2149-50 (“Literary interpretation is indeed…”), for what version of multiculturalism does Nussbaum declare her support, and what vital civic and global benefits does she ascribe to that version of multiculturalism? Why does she say that it is “radical” (2150) and, by implication, by no means conservative as her critics claim? In what sense is this humanistic model also crucial, in her view, to the health and continued success of literary studies in the United States?

13. General question: In our selection from Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1997), as elsewhere, Martha Nussbaum declares herself a strong, unhesitant advocate for the liberal humanist tradition in American and European letters and education. A few others in this anthology are reasonably placed within that camp, among them Matthew Arnold (Leitch 681-710), Lionel Trilling (Leitch 1144-66), and Leo Strauss (Leitch 1095-1105). Choose one of these authors or any other in our anthology whose work you consider appropriate to the subject (we may or may not have studied the author as assigned reading) and compare his or her precepts with the ones in the selection we have read by Martha Nussbaum. Alternatively, pick an author you believe would be a serious critic of Nussbaum’s humanist outlook, and use that author to criticize Nussbaum’s prescription for modern education.

14. General question: In our selection from Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1997), Martha Nussbaum defends those who scorn the often-voiced notion that it is wrong for teachers to carry a “political agenda” into the classroom with them. In fact, she insists (see 2144 bottom) that the humanist “multiculturalism” she promotes is deeply politicalin the most constructive sense of that term. How do you interpret her claims in this regard? Professor Nussbaum is certainly not suggesting that teachers should come into the classroom and tell you who to vote for or dictate what position you’re obliged to take on specific political issues. What, then, is she suggesting as the right way to regard the political dimension of literary studies?

15. General question: In our selection from Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1997), Martha Nussbaum offers an impassioned defense of what some would call a rather traditional brand of classical liberal humanism in education, one that unabashedly posits “universal” values in the service of creating “world citizens” out of American college students. She does so in an updated way that by no means grants exclusive rights to Americans of white European descent to determine what is taught and what must regarded as universally true. Still, to what extent do you consider her optimism about the mind-broadening power of higher education valid in a time of extreme polarization, of fragmentation, of racial and class tribalism, and of Internet-led “balkanization” of political discourse? Do you believe that Americans—younger adult Americans included—are still open to the kind of mind-expansion that Professor Nussbaum sincerely believes in? Why or why not? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake