Thursday, September 03, 2009

Martha C. Nussbaum's "Cultivating Humanity"

Subtitled "A Classical Defence of Reform in Liberal Education," the book presents a philosophical argument for world citizenship, and the relevant educational reform, as well as a descriptive picture of what is actually happening in American campuses. The argument enlists Socrates and the Stoics, in the main, to argue for thinking of ourselves as inquiring world citizens. The description of college reform relies on information gathering and hundreds of interviews from a "core" group of 15 institutions chosen to represent  different types of colleges and universities. The combination of philosophical and empirical approaches achieves what many polemics on higher education don't: a coherent and reasonable argument backed up by a rich picture of actual reality.

The world citizen, which American universities should produce, is characterized by three traits: Socratic self-examination, understanding of different cultures, and narrative imagination, the last of which encourages empathy for others. Nussbaum devotes a chapter to each trait. In "Citizens of the World," she describes with enthusiasm the Cultural Encounters program at St. Lawrence College.

The Cultural Encounters program is a model of responsible teaching in several areas of human diversity. By design, it encompasses not only the encounter with a foreign culture but also related issues of gender, ethnic and religious pluralism, and sexuality, presenting issues of American pluralism in relation to those of global cultural diversity. Its interdisciplinary character ensures that these issues will be faced from many interlocking perspectives, including those of literary study and anthropology, long prominent in multicultural teaching, but also those of economics, biology, philosophy, and foreign language teaching. 

The process by which the faculty put together the program is fascinating, Most interesting to me is the faculty's preference for the term interculturalism to the terms multiculturalism and diversity, since the latter are associated with relativism and identity politics. Nussbaum writes,

Interculturalism, by contrast, connotes the sort of comparative searching that they have in mind, which, they argue, should prominently include the recognition of common human needs across cultures and of dissonance and critical dialogue within cultures. The interculturalist, they argue, has reason to reject the claim of identity politics that only members of a particular group have the ability to understand the perspective of that group. In fact, understanding is achieved in many different ways, and being born a member of a certain group is neither sufficient nor necessary. Knowledge is frequently enhanced by an awareness of difference (my italics). 

The next three chapters of the book defend the place and importance of African American Studies, Women's Studies and the Study of Human Sexuality in American higher education. Throughout Nussbaum rejects identity politics, separatism, and relativism, and criticizes postmodernist thinking. She places these special interdisciplinary studies in the context of globalization, and shows how essential they are to relating ethically to others. I have much more to say, but will do so in another post.


Gregory Lewis Bynum said...

Thank you for this interesting post, Jee Leong. I’ve been thinking a lot about these & related issues lately, and specifically about needs (such as the need for respect) that are common across cultures, and gender issues. Yesterday I was discussing with my students the notion that gender bias in the family (the hierarchical, “male over female” model) provides the experiential and psychological basis for other forms of oppressive hierarchy (colonialist, racist, religion-based, class-based, heterosexist).

Jee Leong Koh said...

Interesting idea about gender bias in the family. A comparison of family structures across cultures may give some more insights.

Shropshirelad said...

Excellent, thought-provoking post, Jee.

I am glad you italicize the statement: “Knowledge is frequently enhanced by an awareness of difference.” It raises a curious question: what kind of knowledge is enhanced and how do we evaluate what we learn? What do we do with it?

Do we see equals or collections of strengths and weaknesses when we look into the eyes of another person or culture? Socrates teaches one thing about the pursuit of knowledge, of course. Nietzsche another thing. Scripture teaches something these. Which lesson is the correct one? Is there a correct one? Can they all be true? How do we decide?

The Tree of Knowledge bears a curious fruit.

Eshuneutics said...

Hi, Jee, this is interesting, but I have great reservations about the quotation. My reservations go like this. Yes, multiculturalism is weak: it simply says that there are a plurality of cultures that we can dip into. In the UK, this was described as "the steel pans and samosas" approach to education.
Let children have a taste of everything; and understand nothing.
It was an approach born of the melting-pot of urban life in the UK. It never worked. It lacked the rigour to develop anti-racist strategies. In the UK, multiculturism grew out of The Swann report on cultural learning. Because people were afraid to speak of Black or Asian failure in the education system (the truth stigmatises) a warmer blacket was found to wrap up the truth. Interculturalism is a step on. It looks for commonality between cultural groups. Here, I really have a problem. It starts to say that meeting grounds are based upon commonality. It places identity, then, in relation to "what is shared". By establishing these shared points it allows conversations to take place from the centre...not from the margins...not from places of dislocation. It denies that there might be intrinsic values
within anything outside the central points of contact. It is rather like saying that a river can only be known by its confluences, not its source. I find this approach as worrying as statements that only Black people may speak about Black issues, or Gay Men about Gay men etc. I do not see how interculturalism suddenly links to "knowledge is frequently enhanced by an awareness of difference". Difference is what relegates people, in its belief system, into possessing sub-groups of knowledge.
I look at the other comments in relation to this and puzzle too. Gender creates the pyschological basis for racist ideologies? Historically, that is not true. If I tracked racism backwards through UK literature, I wouldn't find gender to be the is assumptions about colour and psychological characteristics. In fact, the opposite would be true. Black female sexuality is a liberation from racial prejudice...with Biblical precedents set by The Song of Solomon. This equation is a real quagmire.

Gregory Lewis Bynum said...

Yes, I agree, Jee Leong, about the importance of analyzing different family structures. This summer I read and taught from an interesting book on this topic by a Turkish psychologist - Family, Self and Human Development Across Cultures by Cigdem Kagitcibasi. The book argues against psychologists’ habit of viewing “healthy” family life according to the small-nuclear-family model, which only prevails in a minority of the world’s societies (Northern European societies and Northern-European influenced society in North America). As an alternative, the modern kind of collectivist family model (larger families, more emphasis on family relationships throughout life) that has been emerging in large cities along the Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere in the non-northern-European, non-U.S. world is presented. While it abandons the extreme sexism and patriarchal, hierarchical structure of more traditional forms of collectivism, it retains an emphasis on large family networks in which close relationships among family members are retained throughout life (as opposed to, say, British or WASP American family models that are more individualistic and atomizing). I do think common threads of gender bias run through all these cultures, however, and that this commonality is worth exploring as well.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Eric and Andrew,

Thanks for your thoughts. I too have a lot of questions for Nussbaum. This post is a too-brief attempt to summarize her argument and approach.

Interculturalism seems to be a step forward from multiculturalism, in the way Andrew describes. As presented in the book, it is, however, not only a discovery of commonality-common needs--among cultures, but also an exploration of the different ways such needs manifest themselves in different cultures. There is something in this position; I'm not sure how much.

Nussbaum suggests we can not only explore our differences, but also evaluate them. (She is against relativism.) An example is female circumcision. The educational programs she describes promote reasonable debate about this issue (and others more associated with the West), but she also thinks, I think, that there are very good arguments against female circumcision. She is against the teacher imposing his/her view on the class, since this goes against Socratic questioning. But she acknowledges that different teachers may be different in this way to different degrees. Her book is more nuanced than I could convey in a short blog-post.

In this book she is also speaking much more as an educator than as a philosopher, and so does not have the space to elaborate a lot on her philosophical positions. I have not read her other books, and so cannot supplement my understanding of this book by referring to her other work.

I am thinking, in my desultory way, how to reconcile what is valuable in her, with my current fascination with Nietzsche. N. is uncompromisingly relativist, a position I personally find attractive. N. thinks it's difficult--impossible?--to distinguish between good and evil. For him, suffering is not self-evidently an evil, for example. N. criticizes democracy for leveling down. N. is also against idealism of any stripe, since it denies the basic fact of existence: we die, we pass away. There is no ideal Dance, for "how can we tell the dancer from the dance?"

Shropshirelad said...

Hi Jee

I see the attraction of N. certainly. Relativism works well as a playground for ideas.

But I think we must also remember that when we accept an antibiotic to treat an infection we may also, in a very material sense, be swallowing a system of thought...


Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Eric,
I think the relationship between antibiotic and philosophy is complex and tangled, and does not admit of a one-to-one relationship. Scientific discoveries, of which antibiotics is only one instance, have also been connected with Chinese Confucianistic feudalism.

Shropshirelad said...

Hi Jee,

It is a complex relationship, certainly. Nor do I suggest that any civilization has a copyright on particular forms of knowledge or particular ways of thought, such as science or math. But it is an interesting cultural question. There first time I saw it asked was in Donald Keene's biography of Emperor Meji.

In 19th century Japan there was some considerable debate about whether the heirs to the throne should be vaccinated against smallpox using western medical techniques. No one doubted the efficacy of the techniques: success had been amply demonstrated already among many members of the Japanese public. Still, some more conservative members of the Imperial Household Agency thought such an action, so close to the throne, might be perceived as a cultural concession to the west.

In the end, I think, the physicians won the debate. All heirs to the Japanese throne were innoculated. With no ill-effects.

All the best,

Jee Leong Koh said...

That's a fascinating story, Eric. I did not know it. Thanks.

Shropshirelad said...

Hi Jee,

It's a very odd little story, isn't it? I am glad you like it. I have often thought about writing a poem on it, but I am not sure I have the right perspective to do it.

It's one of those strange little footnotes to History. I sometimes think that the most far-reaching decisions in history actually takes place in the footnotes and marginalia of Time...