Friday, February 15, 2013

Humanities Speaking: Cultivating Democracy in Education

Knowledge is ubiquitous. We can find it everywhere. We can carry mini-computers in our pockets that allow us, at any moment, to “google” a question to find an answer. We can sit down at a computer, while watching TV, and find the answers to Jeopardy questions or the filmography of a particular actor to “know” more stuff. The rise of MOOC’s illustrates that anyone with an internet connection can learn and learn from the pre-eminent scholars in any given field. Knowledge is everywhere. Scratch the surface and it is there. This is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing as NBC teaches us “the more you know”… Being informed is quite central to living in a democracy. Yet, if knowledge is everywhere are schools - once the place of learning - becoming obsolete? The obvious answer is no because there is something that keeps us going to school - namely the law. However, in going to school the question perhaps changes from thinking about “knowledge” to thinking about about “relating”. We go to school to meet others and this meeting is crucial, particularly for youth, in developing how one relates to the other. Relating is not devoid of knowledge - both relating and knowing are intertwined. Martha Nussbaum (2010) notes as much writing “when we meet in society, if we have not learned to see both self & other in that way, imagining in one another inner faculties of thought and emotion, democracy is bound to fail” (6). Democracy (and public education is a significant piece of democracy) fails when people fail to meet, fail to see (and seeing requires knowing) the other as quite simply “human”. So, how do we not fail at democracy, but perhaps succeed at it…even if momentarily?

Nussbaum’s Not For Profit, is a manifesto - a manifesto for the necessity and importance of meeting the other. Such meetings are cultivated through a liberal arts education. Yet, looking at the current state of affairs - globally but with specific emphasis on the US and India - she draws our attention to the growing emphasis on placed on an education that provides  “skills for short term profit” centered on learning in the STEM subjects. To counter this trend, she puts forward an argument for the arts and humanities as necessary for creating not a society of technocrats, but citizens who experience an education that engages the soul. The soul for her is “the faculties of thought and imagination that makes us human and make our relationships, rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation” (6). The soul (along with the body that works) becomes the foundation for her vision of democratic education. Refusing to give up the critical, aesthetic, and ethical components of human life that are brought out by the arts, she argues drawing upon classical philosophy of Aristotle, the life and work of Dewey and Tagore, along with empirical work emerging from the social sciences that we cultivate critical thinking and reflection to re-assert the purpose of education as one that is not merely about “employment”, but also about citizenship and creating meaningful lives.

Now, of course, some will say such purposes are too costly in depressed economic times, but as Nussbaum shows, the capabilities that are cultivated through the arts and humanities (alongside the STEM subjects) are ever more important at times like these and worth the cost. Many in contemporary politics may scoff at her thoughts - particularly given President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address that argued for education, but only for education that created capable employees that can boost our economy (whether those employees are happy, healthy, or enjoy their work is of no concern for him). The task for us, if we follow Nussbaum, is to question such an approach to education - to, in fact, not do business as usual, but make the “art” argument. “Art” as she writes “is a great enemy of that obtuseness, and artists…are not the reliable servants of any ideology…they always ask the imagination to move beyond its usual confines, to see the world in new ways” (23-24). While it would seem, drawing of President Obama’s SOTU address and his call for American’s to take seriously the “unfinished task” of American democracy, that the imagination would be fostered; the fact remains that educational policy has failed to cultivate crucial abilities to take part in democracy [see K. Bernstein’s piece in the Washington Post entitled “A Warning to College Profs from a High School Teacher”].

Nussbaum offers a list of abilities that she thinks should be cultivated in schools with such abilities allowing for a broad “liberal” education that simultaneously develops capable employees, but more importantly informed citizens and happy people that can think and engage in the complexities of the world (rather than merely listening to “authorities”). These include, but are not limited to, “the ability to think well about political issues affecting the nation, to examine, reflect, argue, and debate, deferring neither to tradition nor authority”; “to have concern for the lives of others”; and “the ability to imagine well a variety of complex issues” (25-26). While these are all abilities that could be cultivated in various spaces, Nussbaum draws particular attention to schools (not because they can solve it alone) but because “schools…are at least one influential force in a child’s life, and one whose messages we are likely to be able to monitor more easily than others” (35). It is the school that has a “captive” audience for years as students navigate their way through grades, subjects, and school buildings figuring out how to make sense of the world, themselves, and the relationships with those around them (physically and virtually).

The current state of education - following Nussbaum’s argument - does not adequately cultivate the ability for students to engage the world democratically. It “teaches to the test”, it emphasizes “technical” training or “STEM subjects” while negating or neglecting the arts and humanities. There is, of course, nothing wrong with technical training or STEM subjects. The issue is when any one approach to education or subject matter becomes the dominant approach or subject. Students are able to become “smart” in a specialized way, but are not invited to develop broad based abilities outside of their specialization. They are allowed to develop immense stores of knowledge about “x”, but are not offered opportunities to develop emotional understanding, imaginative thoughts, and ethical relationships. Education - when conceived as an economic, and predominantly an economic situation, becomes obsessed with particular things (e.g. knowledge and skills) while negating or neglecting other things (e.g. enjoyment, ethics). This impacts not only what and how students learn, but also how and what teachers are allowed or able to do given the political situation.

So, what are we to do? Nussbaum offers a couple golden nuggets to help think about developing arguments for and the importance of the arts and humanities. “An adequate education for living in a pluralistic democracy must be multicultural” which Nussbaum means “acquaints students with some fundamentals about the histories and cultures of the many different groups with whom they share laws and institutions” (91). To live in democracy is not to agree with everyone, but it is to meet others and to do so without violence. And to meet others requires the ability to meet others (one of the reasons why segregation is problematic) and the opportunity to learn from (and with) the other (the need for a complex curriculum). “Good teaching” in such a way she contends “requires teaching children to see how history is put together from sources and evidence of many kinds, to learn to evaluate evidence, and to learn how to evaluate one historical narrative against another” (89). While Nussbaum uses history, the example is for illustrative purposes as “once students learn how to inquire, and what questions to ask, they can transfer their learning to another part of the world” (92). This again is not merely to acquire knowledge, but also to engage the emotion and imaginative capacities of living in a global world so that when one meets some other, one does not react in violence. Knowledge only gets us so far as we also have to deal with human vulnerability which is often negated (particularly for men) by trying to have complete control. The education that Nussbaum is advancing then is, perhaps simply, one that “involves the ability to see the world as a place in which one is not alone” (97).

Education often makes people feel alone (at all levels). Its focus on competition and success cultivates a skepticism of collaborating with the other. So, what is the task to disrupt this approach, to develop an education that is not so lonely? That cultivates collaboration? That refuses to neglect or ignore the emotional side of things? I am not sure. It is a project that is perhaps on-going and changing. But it is a challenge that must be taken up in order to create an education that is democratic, humane, and pleasurable.

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