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Expired · 1st August 2010
Ray Grigg
The trend in education during the last several decades has been toward utilitarianism, toward getting those skills that will lead graduates to targeted jobs. The direction of study has been for degrees in economic analysis, business administration, applied sciences and technical training. The lure of secure and lucrative employment has enticed students away from the humanities, from those courses in art, literature, history, philosophy and theology that seem to yield less tangible and practical skills.

This fits the materialistic temper of our times. Cultures, generally, have been shifting toward the materialistic and conservative. Trade and monetary affluence have become the defining qualities of that elusive notion called progress. Governments have mirrored this drift, both accommodating and encouraging it in education.

But Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher and legal scholar from the University of Chicago coincidentally, the same university that has spawned the powerful Chicago school of modern economic theory has a different perspective. In her recent book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, she argues that we need liberal education to nourish the basic skills that give civilizing guidance to our cultures.

Without the humanities, she contends, we lose the moral compass that keeps us from getting lost. If we think only money, production and economics, we fail to anticipate where these practices may take us. And without the ethical and moral considerations to understand and judge our behaviour and its consequences, we are like a moving vehicle without a steering device. We learn how to invent, manufacture, market, ship, travel and spend but we lack the capacity for choosing whether or not we should actually engage in such activity. We eventually function by rote and reflex, always following the most profitable enticements without noticing the collateral costs. Basic and fundamental human issues such as happiness, contentment, fulfilment, beauty, harmony and wisdom are not considered in our decision making process.

Dr. Nussbaum contends that the humanities provide us with three important skills essential to a successful civilization.

* First is critical thinking, the ability to understand the structure of logical argument, to recognize the fallacies in our thinking, and to identify the strategies that are being used by others to manipulate us. Philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, morality, and even theology, all hone our thinking skills, making us more complex, deep, searching and discriminating individuals. Thus the decisions we make are more likely to be nuanced, thoughtful and intelligent.
* Second is a broadening in our comprehension of the world and its peoples: how they relate to each other, how their history impacts their perception of the present, and how their different modes of thinking provide them with unique systems for understanding and interpreting their lives and surroundings.
* And third is an expanded capacity for imagination so we can envision in fresh ways, reach novel insights and anticipate the end result of a particular behaviour we undertake. Without these three capabilities, Dr. Nussbaum believes, we cannot function socially or democratically.


The social importance of the humanities is fairly obvious. We need to agree on common ethical and moral standards in order to live harmoniously with each other. If we don't have empathy, compassion, caring, sharing, tolerance and a general sensitivity for our fellow humans, our society may neither flourish nor survive.

Without the skills provided by the humanities, democracy doesn't function well, either. Catchy sound bites and vacuous political platitudes are not a substitute for differences of informed opinion and complicated arguments. We need to be engaged in the complexity of things to appreciate the weight of our individual decisions in shaping our personal lives and the fate of our communities.

And now we must add our environment, for it is becoming the single largest mirror of our collective character. While our Age of Science informs us, it doesn't necessarily direct us to behave wisely. The planetary environmental mess we are presently creating for ourselves is an expression of how we think and the values we hold. If we reduce our considerations to only efficiency, money and consumer products to economic utilitarianism we compromise our human potential and we risk irreparable environmental damage.

"We do not live by bread alone." So we flock to parks, forests, rivers, mountains, shorelines and places of natural beauty because they nourish and heal the part of us that is more than consumer statistics. We need only note the agony of people in the US Gulf States to realize the consequences of fixating on oil production without exercising due caution. We need only see the ruination of BC's interior pine forests to recognize the surprising and obtuse impacts of a warming climate.

Imagination can save us from a plethora of other environmental catastrophes if we exercise it as a preventative strategy. We need only imagine a wrecked supertanker on our West Coast to end the possibility of an actual oil spill. We need only imagine our oceans without fish to eliminate the inevitable result of industrial harvesting. In a world of finite limits, imagination can anticipate the likely consequence of any unrestrained behaviour. Perhaps, if we thought more critically, understood more comprehensively and imagined more vividly, we would be living in a safer and saner world.

This is why we need the humanities. If we don't begin to arrange our priorities more thoughtfully and find our perspective by asking searching questions about who we are and what we truly want, we may find that we have relinquished those decisions to disruptive forces wholly beyond our control.


by Ray Grigg