The Liberal Arts Belong in Liberal Democracy: A Response to Martha Nussbaum

Keith Whitaker

Martha Nussbaum is a professor in the philosophy department, the law school, and the divinity school at the University of Chicago. The quality of the opinion piece she published on February 28 in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) suggests that she may want to make her departmental rounds and bone up on some logic, review the rules of evidence, and say a prayer. 

Nussbaum’s title pleads that “The Liberal Arts are Not Elitist.” Hardly a daring claim. In the 20 years since Allan Bloom tweaked Harvard students as “my fellow elitists,” the Liberal-Arts-Are-Elitist camp hasn’t exactly flourished. 

What Nussbaum seems to mean is that the liberal arts are crucial for democracy. Or for building a world community. Or for advancing the “human-development paradigm.” Or something like that. Her final sentiment applies here: “Until we are clear about what we are striving for, it is difficult to figure out how to get it to those who need it.” Indeed. 

What she is against seems somewhat clearer: “education for economic growth” or “education for profit.” These educators for economic growth (EEGs?) apparently have a nefarious plan to churn out “useful machines” rather than thoughtful citizens. To foil them, we must rally to the good old liberal arts. 

Nice story, but to risk sounding like an EEG fellow-traveler, where’s the evidence? In 2,000 words, Nussbaum offers exactly zero examples of EEGs, their plans, their departments or institutions, or the damage they’ve done. She does tell one tale of a university president who canceled her address on “The Future of Liberal Education” in order to highlight his university’s achievements in technology. This sounds more like proof of sour grapes than of a crisis. 

Perhaps she thinks the EEGs so ubiquitous that it’s unnecessary to prove their existence. And yet she notes that “the United States has never had a pure growth-directed model of education”; that most U.S. students study a wide range of subjects, including the humanities, in high school and their first two years of college; and that U.S. educators have long linked study of the liberal arts to the formation of democratic citizens. 

So if our educational system is friendly to the liberal arts, what is Nussbaum worried about? She tips her hand when she says that the mysterious EEGs seek to produce graduates so “morally obtuse” that they will carry out “economic development that ignores equality.” Economically equal outcomes look like her real goal. Such outcomes, of course, don’t arise naturally from a free market. They require “law and institutions.” And they require voters (at least until the new class of bureaucrats and human development experts get a firm handle on things) who respect each other’s differences in “religion, ethnicity, wealth and class, physical impairment, gender, and sexuality,” so as to support the equalization that the government will effect. 

Nussbaum’s apparent defense of the liberal arts turns out to be just another rallying cry for diversity and socialism. Since she seems to think universities aren’t doing enough on this front already, presumably her argument supports adding to the shadow university of diversiphilic administrators (which has already overtaken faculty in budget terms) rather than to liberal arts faculty. 

In other words, for all her bluster, Nussbaum sounds quite content with the diversiphilic university as an agent of social change. Her target is political, not educational, and the mysterious EEGs are a projection onto the Left’s favorite bogeyman, the benighted American public. 

Nussbaum’s true goal reveals itself in the ham-fisted way she argues that that the current educational system ignores “human development.” Yes, she admits, the United States promotes the humanities and the liberal arts. Still, she warns, access to education is limited. Then, in the next line, she cites “even larger disparities” in developing nations, such as India, with its male literacy rate of 65% and female literacy rate of 50%. In the subsequent paragraph she alludes vaguely to other “disparities,” including urban-rural, male-female, and rich-poor. 

Huh? Does she mean to imply that United States literacy is anything like India’s? UNESCO, hardly a capitalist tool, ranks the U.S. 19th in literacy, with a 99% adult rate, while India clocks in at 147th, with a 61% adult rate. Regarding access to higher education, UNESCO also finds that the United States houses the largest number of higher education institutions and students. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that well over half of adult Americans have attended college or have a higher education degree, and the gender gap in baccalaureate degrees has vanished—or even swung the other way in recent years. 

One can reasonably argue over the methodology behind these statistics. But the general point seems indisputable: liberal democracies, built upon free markets, provide the best ground for true human development. Although she speaks repeatedly about the liberal arts as well as democracy, Nussbaum never mentions liberal democracy. For all the talk about the EEGs, her beef is not with the United States’ educational system but with its political system. Liberal democracy rests upon individual rights, which protect our goods and our pursuit of happiness from others, especially the state. Nussbaum’s democracy takes the state (or the “world community”) as the end, which will develop our capacities in ways it (or experts such as Nussbaum) see fit. The one sees the individual as primary, the other the collective. The 20th century provides ample empirical evidence for which of the two alternatives proves more hospitable to humanity. 

The liberal arts do have a crucial role in liberal democracy. They give citizens the knowledge to understand the worth of freedom and the humanity to make a free life worth living. Neither of these ends would be served by Nussbaum and her impoverished conception of development. 

Keith Whitaker is president of Wise Counsel Research ( and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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