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  • Opinion

Martha Nussbaum on why democracy needs the humanities

5 October 2017

 “Knowledge is no guarantee of good behavior, but ignorance is a virtual guarantee of bad behavior.”

That's a quote from celebrated philosopher, Martha Nussbaum's 2010 book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. In the book, Nussbaum launches an eloquent and powerful defense of the humanities. In an interview with the National Endowment for the Humanities, Nussbaum summarized it thus:

There are three points you can make. The one I think should be front and center is that the humanities prepare students to be good citizens and help them understand a complicated, interlocking world. The humanities teach us critical thinking, how to analyze arguments, and how to imagine life from the point of view of someone unlike yourself.

Secondly, we need to emphasize their economic value. Business leaders love the humanities because they know that to innovate you need more than rote knowledge. You need a trained imagination.

Singapore and China, which don’t want to encourage democratic citizenship, are expanding their humanities curricula. These reforms are all about developing a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

But the humanities also teach us the value, even for business, of criticism and dissent. When there’s a culture of going along to get along, where whistleblowers are discouraged, bad things happen and businesses implode.

The third point is about the search for meaning. Life is about more than earning a living, and if you’re not in the habit of thinking about it, you can end up middle-aged or even older and shocked to realize that your life seems empty.

You can listen to a full lecture by Nussbaum on the contents of the book below.