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Not for profit: the decent society is about more than impact

Philosophy, history and classics are more than the icing on academia’s cake, says Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. Elizabeth Gibney finds out why she believes we ignore them at our peril.

In your book Not for Profit you argue that the world is in desperate need of the humanities—why?

Humanities are needed for a stable and successful democracy. I think people forget that. There are three things that without humanities we couldn’t have: critical thought and the ability to distinguish between good and bad argument; a broader understanding of the world we live in; and imagination—seeing from a different perspective.

Where does research come in?

You’re not going to get first-rate people teaching if they’re not doing research. But also the research itself gives perspectives on world history and illuminates how to face problems. For instance, I’ve been interested to hear some say that in part it was a lack of understanding of economic history that caused the current financial crisis.

What do you make of the UK’s attempts to measure “impact” in research?

This seems to look for impact on the economy rather than the longer-term future of democracy or illuminating human problems—that’s not even a good demand of science. We need to probe problems in an open way.

If humanities are pushed aside in favour of more applied subjects, where could it end?

People could have a tendency to submit to authority and peer pressure. In places such as Singapore, this has led to having an authoritarian regime in power. You can even look at a successful democracy such as India, where in states with a very authoritarian regime, such as Gujarat, critical thinking in schools is virtually banned. There, up to 2,000 innocent Muslims were violently killed [in 2002] while the police were told to stay at home.

Is there an argument for diversifying university teaching?

Absolutely. In the US liberal arts system, whatever your major subject, you’re required to take core subjects. It’s good because no one is faced with making the terrible choice between an option that will provoke thought and one that will get them a job. And whatever they pursue they will always have that background. That’s what [the 19th century philosopher] John Stuart Mill admired in that sort of system and it’s rapidly disappearing from the world.

The UK government wants student choice to mould higher education. Is this a good idea?

It is trying to allow conscious choice on the part of the students to decide funding, and that’s a very bad and short-sighted idea. Young people, especially at a time of economic anxiety, are simply not good judges. We should have a good measure of choice, but we can’t go the whole way.

Is there any validity in the argument to prioritise maths and science, at least in the short term?

Even if we assume our only goals are to produce national economic growth we still need humanities, as Singapore and China have found out. They’ve suddenly realised they’ve got these docile workers who need their imagination building up. But the goal should be much broader, although it’s hard for politicians to do that with their short-term shelf life.

How involved are you with trying to change this?

I’m very active in my own university with private donors, trying to rekindle their interest in the humanities and involving the public. At national level—well, I was a colleague of President [Obama], but despite his liberal arts college education he doesn’t talk about the arts at all. He chose a minister of education who’s not interested either.

You like to say that a good argument is one you can oppose. What’s the best counter-argument to yours?

One thing that does have to be answered is that although it’s important to learn about the arts and humanities, some say that doesn’t mean supporting research that’s unintelligible to the public and so doesn’t add to enlightenment. That’s a legitimate criticism and being obtuse can obscure absence of thought. But overall, for our understanding to improve, we have to be free to go down blind alleyways and not have everything planned out.

How can humanities be brought back into the fold?

In the US we have the liberal arts system and the goal is to keep it. Where you don’t have this tradition, it’s more difficult and you have to work with what you’re given. In the UK, it has to be about the role of humanities in creating a decent public culture. The [desire for a] decent equal society is very broadly shared [in the UK]—you just passed the equality bill for example—so linking humanities and arts to achieving those social goals is a good idea.