The Classics

Repost-From The Harvard Educational Review-A Review Of Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.’

Full review-essay here.

Nussbaum’s book can be found here.

 “Nussbaum sees the university as under attack from two directions, one represented by conservative critics, such as Allan Bloom, George Will, and Roger Kimball, who accuse the university of fostering relativism, trendy “political correctness,” and an ignorance of, if not downright antipathy toward, the standards of reason and the canon of Great Literature that the university, they believe, should be defending. The other threat comes from groups, including some feminists and advocates of racial and ethnic difference, who have also challenged the traditions of the university, questioning its reliance upon Western- or male-centered rationality and a canon that is insufficiently inclusive of the contributions of nondominant groups.”

This is insightful.  Perhaps, like Camille Paglia, you are genuinely concerned that humanities departments have given too free a home to equality ideologues, feminists and relativists, and that this has spilled back out into the culture at large.   Yet, popular political thinkers on the right, like George Will (and Paglia herself who’s not on the right), aren’t deep enough to get at the root of the problem as Nussbaum is here defining it:  classical learning.

So what does Nussbaum suggest?

“Between these two lines of attack, she believes, the university must articulate a conception of itself that defends the standards of reason, while remaining open to new points of view; that preserves the intellectual traditions and canons that define U.S. culture, while consciously broadening the curriculum to expose students to traditions which diverge from their own and which, in their difference, may confront students with an awareness of their own parochialism; that remain respectful and tolerant of many points of view without lapsing into relativism; and in short, that manages to prepare students simultaneously to be citizens of U.S. society, and cosmopolitans, “citizens of the world.”

This has always struck me as a little too broad of a vision to maintain (too heavy on the gender and equality side of things, too much of its time and part of feminist logic I find has little to no place for me and can threaten the classics), though I certainly respect the attempt.  We should aim to be citizens of the world and in the best Aristotelian sense (such depth and breadth may be in fact necessary). But is it enough within this framework?

Our author remains skeptical, and finds that the book didn’t quite meet Nussbaum’s own aims:

“In all of this, I think, we return to the narrow conception of philosophy that drives Nussbaum’s argument. By equating philosophy with the defense of Socratic reason, and by refusing to consider that this mode of analysis may not provide the universal discourse for resolving disagreements even within this society, let alone on a global scale, Nussbaum ends up providing, on the whole, a conception of liberal education that diverges very little from the secular university’s present self-conception.”

An interesting review.   Obviously, there’s more depth here than I’ve addressed.

Related On This Site:-Martha Nussbaum On Eliot Spitzer At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution  The limits of globalism? Martha Nussbaum In Dissent–Violence On The Left: Nandigram And The Communists Of West Bengal …Camille Paglia At Arion: Why Break, Blow, Burn Was Successful…A Few Thoughts On The Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy Entry: Nietzsche’s Moral And Political Philosophy…A Few Thoughts On Allan Bloom–The Nietzsche Connection

Two Monday Links: Global Liberalism & Classical Retreat

Abram Shulsky At The American Interest: ‘Liberalism’s Beleaguered Victory’

‘However varied they are, these counter-ideologies generally share a sense that liberalism’s protection and privileging of individual self-interest as opposed to the common good (however defined) makes it ignoble; potentially or actually unjust; and chaotic or anarchic and hence ultimately weak. This sensibility is evident in the pejorative meaning of the term “bourgeois”: someone who is so immersed in the pursuit of petty material concerns that he is blind to both nobility of soul and the claims of social justice.’

Interesting read, and some points well taken about China, Russia, even Germany, which have incentives to reject certain aspects of liberalization.  It may have always been a little alien to them (addition: yes, even the Germans).

I’m guessing the views represented in the article could lead to a view that liberalism will need to continue its appeal and activity in the Muslim world, and that it still is THE global force to be reckoned with, from individual rights to Western Statecraft to more open markets to technological advancements to a host of other ideas and influences.  Resistance may not be futile, but even a non-ideological retreat into the mosque, nature, the monastery, etc. may not be enough to resist at least some liberalizing influences.

Ideologically and policy-wise, such thinking can lead to support for, well, more Westernization and liberalism, meaning anything from a defense of trade-routes and American security interests to neo-conservative military intervention as in Iraq to humanitarian peace activism and global human rights secular one-worldism, which often gets our military involved at some point.


A.E. Stallings has a piece about the Parthenon’s frieze:

‘It is consistent with the conventions of Greek temple art for a frieze to depict a foundational myth of the city and her cults. To me, Connelly’s theory is attractive and plausible, and is backed by a considerable breadth and depth of scholarship—archaeological, visual, and textual. Not everyone will be persuaded, and the absolute certainty of the author will be off-putting to some; but her ideas cannot be dismissed out of hand.’

Looking back towards the classics, or through our lenses and language, platforms and theories, interests and passions:

A poem by Stallings:

The Mistake

The mistake was light and easy in my hand,
A seed meant to be borne upon the wind.
I did not have to bury it or throw,
Just open up my hand and let it go.

The mistake was dry and small and without weight,
A breeze quickly snatched it from my sight,
And even had I wanted to prevent,
Nobody could tell me where it went.

I did not think on the mistake again,
Until the spring came, soft, and full of rain,
And in the yard such dandelions grew
That bloomed and closed, and opened up, and blew