This an edited version of my review of Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit, first published in Radical Philosophy 166 (Mar/Apr 2011), and sections from a longer article on ‘Philosophy for Children’ first published in Radical Philosophy 170 (Nov/Dec 2011). Both publications developed out of a talk entitled ‘Philanthropy and the Image of the University’, given at a workshop (7th December 2010) on ‘The Humanities and the Idea of the University’, organised by Christian Kerslake at Middlesex University in the aftermath of the Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign that summer.
The publication of Lord Browne’s 2010 report on higher education and the British government’s subsequent implementation of unprecedented cuts to teaching funding, alongside the trebling of tuition fees, threatens to place English institutions in the unenviable position of being at the forefront of the ongoing neoliberal capitalist experiment with the university, potentially leapfrogging the USA in the scale and depth of its ambition to fully privatize higher education. As proved by the closure of Philosophy at Middlesex University in 2010 (as well as a number of other humanities departments across Europe and the USA), this transformation has been aggressively pre-empted by many institutions, mindful of the cuts to public spending that have been announced in Greece, Italy, Ireland and California. It has already provoked a range of theoretical responses from those seeking to defend the value and importance of the humanities: most significantly, if not uniquely, threatened by these changes.
What often unites these responses is the desire for a recuperation of the public function of the humanities (and philosophy in particular) on the basis of its civic potential, a desire which establishes the agenda for debates about the value and necessity of such disciplines within education. On an international scale, this can be seen in UNESCO’s Intersectoral Strategy on Philosophy from 2005, which promotes the study of philosophy at all levels of education through activities such as the introduction of a World Philosophy Day. In the United Kingdom, it is evident in the University of Warwick’s appointment of the first Senior Fellow in the Public Understanding of Philosophy and in the formation of The Philosophy Shop, a not-for-profit organization encouraging and facilitating the teaching of philosophy in schools.
Crisis of Education
Alongside this desire for philosophy to recuperate its public function, there is simultaneously a desire for the public to become more philosophical. This is most evident in Martha Nusbbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010). Nussbaum situates her intervention in the context of a ‘world-wide crisis in education’, but singles out British education (even prior to the Browne report) for exceptional criticism for remodelling its universities according to the narrowest principles of economic growth – leading to the outright closure of humanities departments or mergers with more directly vocational courses – and for subjugating academic research to the demands of ‘impact’ borrowed from the natural sciences.
Following in the footsteps of Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins traces this crisis in terms of globalized neoliberal shift in the ideological function of education. This involves a shift away from the older task of the modern university of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which sought to produce a unifying, national culture, predicated on on the construction of a national identity rooted in language, history, culture and the arts, and the reproduction of a bourgeois class consisting in lawyers, doctors and clergy but also public intellectuals.
As the contemporary university seeks in turn to reproduce the social relations of the globalized marketplace of late capitalism, this kind of public discourse has been rendered largely redundant. For Readings the rise of the interdisciplinary subject of cultural studies signifies precisely the absence of a unifying culture and hence its current ideological emptiness, since culture is reduced to the same level as an object of study as all others. This is substituted for the pursuit of ‘excellence’; a concept ambiguous enough, Readings argues, that it can encompass the disparate academic and economic interests of the university and technological capitalism. For reasons that I would suggest are partly conceptual and partly historical, Readings tends to misconceive this shift as ‘non-ideological’, but I would counter that it is one from a classical liberal to a neoliberal ideology.1
For Nussbaum, philosophy and the humanities educate students to be critical of tradition and authority, endowing them with the rational autonomy necessary for democratic governance. Her model of education is one structured not ‘for profit’ but ‘for democracy’.
Problems emerge, however, as she reveals the extent of the values essential for democracy and therefore the myopia of her democratic vision. Although she injects a more strenuous cosmopolitanism into the account, her developmental narrative largely conforms to a bourgeois pedagogic theory of late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberalism, starting out from the psychological assumption of an essentially narcissistic infant and orientated towards the political task of producing autonomous, responsible and tolerant citizens necessary for a stable global democracy.
Drawing predominantly on aspects of the work of Rousseau, Nussbaum assumes a ‘widely shared narrative of human childhood’ in which the ‘struggle for freedom and equality must first of all be a struggle within each person, as compassion and respect contend against fear, greed, and narcissistic aggression’. The function of education is to manage the infantile narcissism that results from our awareness of such helplessness, so that individuals mature into well-rounded human beings. This favours a liberal social democracy with a strong emphasis on fundamental rights, protections for political liberty, freedom of speech,association and religious exercise, and an entitlement to education and health. Democratic educational institutions should therefore promote the virtues necessary for good citizenship in such a society: primarily the capacity for rational autonomy and critical thought,social cooperation and sympathetic imagination, and aesthetic, sensual and bodily confidence and integrity. For Nussbaum, philosophy, the humanities and the arts are the cornerstone of such an educational project and as such remain essential for democratic society.
Nussbaum cites Matthew Lipman’s philosophy for children curriculum as one example of the Socratic pedagogy she advocates.2 The intellectual framework drawn on by some in the philosophy for children movement might therefore also be characterized by what Nussbaum calls the ‘classical defence of reform in liberal education’.3 It draws on the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Roman Stoics to appeal to an ethics of individual flourishing and a democratic conception of active citizenship, both founded on dialogue and critical reasoning. Consequently, philosophers find themselves in the ‘marketplace’ again, though in this context motivated by the Socratic desire to engage with a public from which they have become academically estranged.
Return to the Public?
Why should philosophers in the UK be increasingly concerned with the public? Disregarding, for the moment, any ethical and political considerations, the changes in education funding over the last decade or so might provide a partial explanation. Within higher education, research funding has been in the process of shifting towards a conception of ‘impact’ that evaluates not merely the academic importance of a piece of research but also its ‘reach and significance’ in relation to the economy, society and wider culture. This is part of the same general shift towards marketization that informs the cutting of funding to non-STEM subjects and underwrites much of the way universities in the UK are currently being transformed. Although couched in an attractive vision of public engagement, the difficulty of assessing such ‘reach’ entails that, at bottom, it boils down to academics going out into the ‘marketplace’. Whilst the British Philosophy Association (BPA), which represents professional philosophers in the UK, oppose this criterion for the evaluation of philosophy, its recent briefing paper on ‘Philosophy in Schools’ (August 2011) notes how ‘University departments are in a position to describe some of their teaching or research to a wider audience’, including ‘a wider public based in schools’, and that these ‘links between departments and schools are possible channels for “impact”’.4
On the other hand, as John White, Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, pointed out (at a ‘Forum for European Philosophy public debate’ on ‘Philosophy for Children’ at LSE in June 2011),5 the success of enterprises such as philosophy for children is conditioned on similar changes to school funding over the last twenty years, which has produced a market for private educational providers such as The Philosophy Shop (the trading name of the community interest company registered to educational charity The Philosophy Foundation). This is, it must be recognized, a structural necessity for those attempting to intervene in governmental policy from the outside. One of the curiosities of the movement, however, is the way in which its abundance of abbreviations and acronyms (‘P4C’, ‘4Cs Thinking’, ‘3Cs Concepts’, ‘CoPI’) creates an impression of the commercial sale of branded techniques and methods. For example, the claim that Worley has ‘developed the method of Philosophical Enquiry (PhiE) that is at the heart of The Philosophy Shop’s work’ is problematic given the absence of any notably distinct methodological approach to ‘PhiE’ in his book The If Machine.
Despite arousing some hostility in the room, White’s concerns over the potential opportunism of such providers were shared by other speakers and must be considered. Mary Healey, primary school teacher and now senior lecturer in education at Roehampton University, raised a concern about the financial limitations of school budgets that was given a more direct political context by the chair of the session Anthony Seldon, himself Master of fee-charging Wellington College. Seldon worried that the gulf between the state and independent sector, with regard to the former’s need to maximize time and resources towards examination results, might preclude the possibility of supplementary philosophy sessions to children from less privileged backgrounds.6 An expectation that such an industry for educational provision will continue to expand does raise future questions about the occasionally symbiotic relationship between private schools and educational companies, especially given the prominent role many involved seek to play in influencing issues of educational policy that will benefit them.
The Limits of Liberalism
This neoclassicism stems in part from dissatisfaction with the narrow way contemporary philosophy has typically been taught and practised by many academic Anglo-American philosophers, one that responds by returning to the classical tradition in order to reclaim the civic and public function of an ‘engaged’ conception of philosophizing. But it is also responds to contemporary shifts in twenty-first century politics, in the globalized context of Western military and financial interests in the Middle East as well as fears about so-called ‘home-grown’ terrorism.
In this way, a set of ideological values, recognized by those in the West and to be aspired to by those elsewhere, is being resuscitated, to identify the common principles shared by those involved: democracy, enlightenment and secular rationality versus tyranny, fanaticism, and religious and political irrationality. To be clear, the point here is not to disparage democracy, enlightenment and reason per se, nor the commitment and hard work of those involved in promoting philosophy for children, but to consider how this ideological function (i.e. at moments that might otherwise appear undemocratic, unenlightened and irrational) could account for the rhetorical attractiveness and to consider how we might remain equally attentive to what is problematic about them.
One attractive feature is a focus on the classical notion of ethical flourishing, based on the capacity for individuals to think, feel and act for themselves. The classical ideal permits a recuperation of ethics without recourse to an explicitly religious standpoint. This renders it critical in the liberal sense of refusing to accept arguments on the basis of authority or dogma, but limits its capacity to critique other functions of authority and power. To this extent it is concordant with the ideological recuperation of the secular Enlightenment by those concerned with opposing the religious (Islamic) and political (Marxist) versions of ‘fanaticism’, whose irrationality is constituted by a refusal to identify with capitalist ‘reasonableness’ as the inevitability of the way things are.
For example, in The War for Children’s Minds (a title so alarmist I assume the claim within that cultural theorists critical of the Enlightenment often ‘write books with panicky titles’ is meant as ironic), Stephen Law carefully distinguishes between liberal and authoritarian education on the basis of whether students are permitted to ‘question and think critically and independently rather than defer more-or-less uncritically to external authority’.7 ‘The danger of failing to raise new citizens to think critically and independently – and the perils of getting them to defer uncritically to religious Authority instead – have’, Law argues, ‘recently been brought home by the rise of Britain’s homegrown Muslim terrorists.’8 It might be interesting to reflect on whether it is the case that Muslim terrorists are simply deferring to religious authority or actually engaging in critical reinterpretation; what is noteworthy is how the criticality of this liberalism can be directed with ease at the dogma of holy books, but possesses an intransigence when it comes to other forms of domination and power.
Another feature is the restoration of a humanism rooted in the intrinsic and non-instrumental values of certain human activities, often in avowed opposition to the perceived relativism (and anti-humanism) of certain strands of postmodernism. Nussbaum speaks of liberal education as an education for the ‘soul’, neither insisting on nor rejecting the religious connotations of the word but retaining the uniqueness and individuality connoted by it.9 This appeal to the soul (as a kind of non-corruptible residue of humanity) helps justify the civic demands made of the individual, whilst remaining silent – beyond the claims of education – about what the individual might demand of society. To give another example from Law, he claims that a ‘good moral education, on this liberal view, involves making sure new citizens have the skills they need to discharge that responsibility properly’.10 Much of this resonates with a ‘Big Society’ vision of active citizenship and civic responsibility, often devoid of any consideration of the economic basis on which such citizenship might be founded. Thus Philip Blond, director of right-wing think-tank ResPublica and advocate of the Red Toryism that has been influential in this regard, spoke at the LSE roundtable on the absence of tradition, community and truth from contemporary society, and how philosophy for children might encourage a return to these shared ideas.
Seldon, author of the 2010 education manifesto for the Thatcherite think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies (which calls for teaching philosophy to children from primary school upwards) and chair of the session on policy at which Blond spoke, similarly defends the ‘Big Society’ as the ‘society of the future … built up on personal responsibility rather than on the abnegation of it’.11 David Cameron, in a speech at the Free School Norwich, claimed that the coalition government’s ‘revolution in education’ aims to ‘create an education system based on real excellence’, one necessary ‘to produce a new generation of good citizens’ with ‘the character to live a good life, to be good citizens’. The gimmick that Cameron throws to the press to illustrate such an education? Cutting benefits for the parents of persistent truants. What has become apparent in the year and a half that the coalition government has been in office is that education has been targeted as the key ideological battleground on which to pursue their ‘Big Society’ agenda.
The limitations of this classical liberalism have already been exposed in Marx’s critique of the secular division drawn between political community and civil society in what he calls the ‘perfect democratic state’. Of Nussbaum’s narrative of pedagogic development we might therefore ask, with Marx: what kind of emancipation is demanded and what conditions follow from this? For Nussbaum inequality and exploitation are misconceived as primarily psychological disorders of the soul, rather than the economic order of the social. She supposes it is our practical weakness and insecurity that make us desire and need mastery over others, such that children who can negotiate well in their environment have less need for servants to wait on them. Conversely, she regards collective action as entailing a de-humanization which results in democratic disorder, rather than being the product of it. The activity that takes place in the space between individuals for Nussbaum is not work or politics, but play: ‘the ability to imagine what the experience of another might be like’.
Nussbaum’s paradigm is the liberal arts model of US university education, where students are obliged to take a range of subjects in the humanities. Nussbaum identifies the pressure to close humanities departments in UK institutions with the absence of such a liberal arts model, but admits it cannot easily be implemented outside the USA. The diffculty arises because the state funding of higher education in the USA (already proportionally more than the UK) is generously supplemented through philanthropic donations and endowments (a revenue stream significantly higher than in the UK, which has increased during the recession, aided by tax incentives). Indeed, one wonders whether this is the essence of the active, humane and democratic citizenship that Nussbaum seeks to promote: private individuals giving generously to public projects. At one point, she gratefully praises the ‘cultivation of humanistic philanthropy and basically private-endowed structure of funding’ in the USA, and acknowledges a number of institutions which are either supporters or beneficiaries of such philanthropy.
The association between the humanities and philanthropy – etymologically linked via the Latin translation of those subjects in a Greek education that generate the love of humanity (philos anthropos ) – resurfaces in the neoclassicism of the German Enlightenment, and was imported into the United States during the ‘Gilded Age’ of post-Civil War industrial-ism (where philanthropy is evoked as the complement of patriotism). In the UK, these values and the culture of philanthropy they endorsed became superseded by the labour movement and the introduction of the welfare state, and their continued existence in the USA is predicated on the relative absence of such a movement. Margaret Thatcher’s and David Cameron’s more recent recuperation of the Victorian values of self-reliance, personal responsibility and voluntarism draw on the same civic virtues as Nussbaum in this respect. However, Not for Profit’s insistence that a liberal arts education is not the vestige of past elitism or class privilege is contradicted by the realization that philanthropy and the liberal arts are conjoined in either a ‘virtuous’ or a ‘vicious’ circle in Nussbaum’s thought, and therefore predicated on the accumulation of wealth within a capitalist system.
Yet bursaries and subsidies for the poorest students are only the exceptional fig leaf to the perpetuation of existing class divisions. Whilst the Browne review regards philanthropic gifts as an important part of the future of university funding, this dependence will exacerbate not dissolve such divisions. There is no doubt that the Russell Group of elite UK universities can extract donations from wealthy alumni and use this to subsidize access for students from poorer backgrounds. The latter will become a strategic necessity given the levy being proposed for institutions that charge the highest rate of tuition fees, but will nonetheless create a financial disincentive for such universities to widen access for poorer students beyond agreed minimum targets. Ex-polytechnic institutions,however, that serve students from mainly urban and typically socially deprived backgrounds (who cannot ‘choose’ their university, dependent as they are on access to accommodation, childcare and work) cannot rely on the same philanthropic generosity, yet will disproportionately shoulder the cost of subsidizing the education of these poorer students.
Nussbaum’s defence of the humanities has an implicit recourse to philanthropy that is not contingent but predicated on an outmoded and reactionary dependence on private–public philanthropy now largely eliminated from European countries and perhaps recoverable only with the deepening of the socio-economic divide. Its recourse to the language of public good and the democratic, civic virtues of autonomous, critical thought and playful, imaginative sympathy are anachronistically redundant for the shifting concerns of institutions within late capitalist economies beyond the USA.
In general, without recourse to a more radical materialist understanding of political power, the historical and philosophical limitations of Socratic pedagogy and ‘classical’ liberalism render it more difficult to conceptualize our present socio-economic order, resulting in the desire to promote individual political equality whilst remaining inattentive to the economic inequalities that contribute to this situation.
To give one example, whilst Plato’s Republic – a central text for consideration of classical pedagogical theory – demonstrates a keen awareness of how socio-economic relations of production are intimately related to the psycho-social health of each individual, sometimes glossed over by later interpreters, the problematic hermeneutical circularity that results from this (a just individual requires a just city-state; a just city-state requires just individuals) is ultimately resolved at the level of historical idealism. This is demonstrated by the aporia in Plato’s political theory, whereby the first decree of philosophy rulers would be to banish all adult citizens over the age of ten (Book VII). It is not the banishment itself that interests me here (nor whether Plato, who puts these words into the mouth of the character Socrates, genuinely intended it), but the way in which this act, rather than the political programme detailed in the text, constitutes the properly utopian moment of the Republic: utopian because it constitutes a historical no/good-place in which only through the repression of the material basis of both the original production (the repressive apparatus that would perform the expulsion of the citizens) and the continued reproduction (the producer class that would care for the remaining children and work to satisfy the needs of the children and rulers) of this society is historical progress via the uncorrupted knowledge and ideas of the remaining citizens possible. Any assumption of a reliance on slave labour here deepens rather than resolves this aporia. Something akin to this historical idealism could be said to underwrite the political but non-materialist conception of education within ‘classical’ liberalism.
On the one hand, Nussbaum’s defence of education for democracy threatens to introduce a qualitative distinction within the humanities that may be deployed against contemporary disciplines such as sonic arts and the study of film, television and culture (Not for Profit makes no mention of these subjects). On the other hand, its rhetorical appeal to notions of public good and democratic citizenship render it increasingly irrelevant to the interests of corporations and governments that appear to be abandoning even the semblance of democratic responsibility and political accountability.If there is an element of political realism to Nussbaum’s patriotic insistence that it is liberal democracy that needs the humanities (and this is evident in her corollary argument that business requires the humanities too, if it is to avoid a corporate culture of ‘yes-people’ that inhibits innovation and economic success), it is nevertheless unclear whether the socio-economic interests of late capitalism will continue to need or even desire the democratic legitimacy and active citizenship she promotes (as opposed to, say, global consumers).
Indeed, it is possible to regard Nussbaum’s manifesto, like UNESCO’s comparable proclamations on the necessity of philosophy for a cosmopolitan democratic order, as the manifestation of a more general anxiety over the perceived threat to the liberal-democratic values of a cosmopolitan capitalism from the destabilizing influence of so-called religious and political ‘fanaticism’ over the last decade. Those who seek to oppose the neoliberal transformation of higher education would do well not to retreat to the reactionary humanism of the classical liberal model of the university, since the arguments in defence of the humanities proffered by advocates of the liberal arts anachronistically seek not to overcome but to perpetuate existing inequalities, insolvable by any vision of ‘humane capitalism’ and its attendant for-profit and not-for-profit corporations.
1. Readings (who died in an air traffic accident before the book was completed) supposed that the ‘posthistorical’ university is non-ideological in part because his narrative is ambivalently tied to the succession (rather than critique) of an Althusserian concept of ideology (one criticized by Jacques Rancière in ‘On the Theory of Ideology‘, Radical Philosophy 7 (Spring 1974)), and in part because he was not in a position to grasp how, historically, ‘posthistory’ (as the postmodern version of the ‘End of History’) now appears as the brief interregnum between the ideologies of the Cold War and the War on Terror. The contradictions of globalized capitalism necessitate their own ideological apparatus, which takes form as the ‘enlightened’ West’s war on fanaticism.
2. Martha C. Nussbaum, Not for Profit, pp. 73–7.
3. See Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education; and Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.
4. Tom Sorell (BPA Executive Committee and Schools Officer), ‘Schools Briefing Paper’, August 2011; see also ‘Philosophy in Schools’, BPA Newsletter, November 2011, www.bpa.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/BPANewsletter- 2011.pdf.
6. The original Radical Philosophy article, in a discussion of speakers at the LSE event representing schools from the private sector, incorrectly included Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust and governor of St William of York Primary School in Lewisham. St William of York is a Catholic Voluntary-Aided Primary school and therefore partially “independent”, in the sense that the school is not fully funded and controlled by state but the Catholic Church continues to contribute towards its building and upkeep and maintains an influence in its educational values. But the school is not “private” or “independent” in the more restricted sense of charging fees.
7. Stephen Law, The War for Children’s Minds, p. 14. Law is the author of a series of philosophy books for children.
8. Ibid., p. 49.
9. See Nussbaum, Not for Profit, p. 6.
10. Law, The War for Children’s Minds, p. 2.
11. Anthony Seldon, ‘An End to Factory Schools: An Education Manifesto 2010–2020’, Centre for Policy Studies, London, 2010, p. 41, www.cps.org.uk/cps_catalog/an% 20end%20to%20factory%20schools.pdf; Anthony Seldon, ‘Time to Take the Big Society Seriously’, Guardian, 15 February 2011, www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/ 2011/feb/15/take-big-society-seriously.
- Philosophy After Middlesex (benjaminpedagogy.wordpress.com)