Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Martha Nussbaum on Arts Education

From this Newsweek article:

We live in a world that is dominated by the profit motive -— which suggests to concerned citizens that education in science and technology is crucially important to the future success of their nations. I have no objection to good scientific and technical education, and I don't wish to suggest that nations should stop trying to improve it. But I worry that other abilities, equally crucial, are at risk of getting lost in the competitive flurry. The abilities associated with the humanities and the arts are also vital, both to the health of individual nations and to the creation of a decent world culture. These include the ability to think critically, to transcend local loyalties and to approach international problems as a "citizen of the world." And, perhaps most important, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.

This essential ability can be called the narrative imagination: it leads us to be intelligent readers of other people's stories and to understand their emotions and wishes. The cultivation of sympathy was a central public task of ancient Athenian tragedy, and thus a key element in ancient Greek democracy; it has also informed the best modern ideas of progressive education in both Western and non-Western traditions. (American John Dewey and Rabindranath Tagore in India had very similar ideas about the importance of arts education.) One of the best ways to cultivate sympathy is through instruction in literature, music, theater, fine art and dance.

Each culture—indeed, each student—has blind spots: groups within it or abroad that are especially likely to be treated ignorantly or obtusely. A good arts education will select works specifically to promote criticism of this obtuseness, and a better vision of the unseen. Ralph Ellison, in an introduction to a new edition of his 1952 novel "Invisible Man," wrote that such a novel could be "a raft of perception, hope, and entertainment," on which American culture could "negotiate the snags and whirlpools" between us and our democratic ideals. Through the imagination we can have insight into the experience of another group or person that it is difficult to attain in daily life—particularly when our world has constructed suspicions and divisions that make any encounter difficult.


  1. gaddeswarup said...

    For a different point of view:
    Here is a passage from Edge
    “In the twentieth century, a period of great scientific advancement, instead of having science and technology at the center of the intellectual world — of having a unity in which scholarship included science and technology along with literature and art — the official culture kicked them out. Traditional humanities scholars looked at science and technology as some sort of technical special product. Elite universities nudged science out of the liberal arts undergraduate curriculum — and out of the minds of many young people, who, as the new academic establishment, so marginalized themselves that they are no longer within shouting distance of the action.
    Yet it's the products of this educational system that go straight from their desks at university literary magazines to their offices in the heart of the cultural establishment at our leading newspapers, magazines, and publishers. It's a problem that's systemic and not individual. Unless one is pursuing a career path in science, it is extremely difficult for a non-science major at a top research university to graduate with anything approaching what can be considered an education in science. I recently talked with a noted Italian intellectual, who is as familiar with string theory and as he is with Dante, and writes about both in his philosophical novels. In appraising this situation, he argued for restraint and compassion. "They just don't know," he sighed, "they just don't know." He might well have added, they don't even know that they don't know. "
    This is a part of my post "Tunnel Vision" in my blog. I am not sure that I completely agree now with I wrote then.

  2. Anonymous said...

    I'm an admirer of Martha Nussbaum, but there's a disturbing amount of evidence that a refined taste in the arts may accompany the most appalling inhumanity. Ariel Dorfman's play "Death and the Maiden" tells the story of a Chilean woman, imprisoned by the Pinochet regime, whose interrogator liked to listen to that particular Schubert string quartet while inflicting torture on her. Not only did Nazis adore Wagner, Wagner's descendants--charged with preserving his artistic legacy--admired the Nazis. As a musician I would love to think my work had a humanizing effect, and maybe it does, sometimes--but not reliably.