Unrequired Reading

David Clemens

Education needs a manifesto for a new humanism; sadly, Martha Nussbaum’s new book is not that manifesto.  I had high hopes for Not for Profit but Dr. Nussbaum’s argument quickly becomes a tangle of faulty logic and ideology and notably stale seventies feminism.  Why is she still pumping the wells of female victimization (while referencing the female president of Harvard) and the plight of African American children who lack role models (while noting the African American President of the United States)?  At one point, she praises Mr. Obama’s personal values as developed by the progressive education she endorses.  Then she indicts him for not supporting such education for others, raising the question of just what sort of person her recommended liberal education actually produces.  When  Nussbaum pleads for progressive schools (wherein teachers sagely guide students to discover and construct knowledge themselves), I think of Geoffrey Pyke [pictured] and his Malting House School (John Dewey meets William Golding). Although Dr. Nussbaum embraces Socratic self-examination, ideology blinds her to her own biases.  She is pedantic when attacking pedantry, and she abhors “the dead hand of authority” yet repeatedly invokes the authority of Nobel Prize credentials.  She advocates critical thinking to combat “demeaning stereotypes,” then proceeds to stereotype men, women, whites, and Southerners.  Masculinity comes off badly unless it is “maternal” which, she implies, is the true essence of human nature (making masculine behavior an aberration, less than human).  In this book, women are saintly and victimized (unless they are named Margaret Thatcher).  Nussbaum scorns the image of the self-reliant cowboy, then, on the next page, explains that every child must develop “less need to call on others.”  Decrying education that involves mere inculcation of facts (more Seventies flotsam), she later admits to the necessity for “a lot of factual knowledge.” Worse, Dr. Nussbaum extols the individual but avoids any mention of the tribalizing effects of multiculturalism and its diminution of . . . the individual.  Among several straw man arguments, she condemns “the facile equation of Islam with terrorism” without mentioning just who ever assumed that equivalence.  The values she prizes are particularly Western, giving her desire to spread them globally a whiff of cultural imperialism.  And Dr. Nussbaum recommends role-playing to develop sympathy for "the other."  I met an eyewitness from one progressive school in Northern California that did just that:  to develop sympathy for slaves on a ship, teachers locked students in a Quonset hut, chained to their desks surrounded by rotting fish. In fact, Dr. Nussbaum’s book is a call not for a new humanism but for an old political correctness.  She even warns that because artworks are so effective at creating empathy, teachers must exercise “careful selectivity” so that students do not read “defective forms of `literature’” which evoke unsocial feelings and “uneven sympathies.”  Yikes!  Goodbye Salinger, Twain, Poe, O’Conner, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka.  With friends like Dr. Nussbaum, liberal arts education doesn’t need enemies.

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