The Liberal Arts are Not Elitist
by Martha C. Nussbaum, Chronicle of Higher Education, February 28, 2010
There is a crisis of grave proportions brewing, and it’s not the global economic collapse, writes commentator Martha Nussbaum in an opinion column published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The crisis is that education systems, from elementary school up through higher education, are cutting the liberal arts. These systems are “heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive,” Nussbaum writes, and “if the trend continues, all over the world we will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves.”
The United States, unlike most other nations, has long had a liberal arts model of higher education; students take a wide range of courses, instead of specializing immediately upon enrollment. And our tradition of liberal arts education has never emphasized elitism, Nussbaum writes: “From early on, leading American educators connected the liberal arts to the preparation of informed, independent, and sympathetic democratic citizens.” But a relentless focus on economic growth, development, and profit ignores the liberal arts for a reason: “A cultivated and developed sympathy is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore inequality,” Nussbaum argues. We are not forced to choose between an education for economic growth and an education for citizenship, because “a flourishing economy requires the same skills that support citizenship.” Rather than cutting the liberal arts, the United States must continue to work to ensure that they are accessible to ever broader segments of the population, because “most of us would not choose to live in a prosperous nation that had ceased to be democratic.”
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