Saturday, April 10, 2004

Cultivating Humanity? Democracy and Software Engineers

Martha Nussbaum has a piece in this month's issue of Liberal Education, on the value of "cultivating humanity." Liberal education, though it has its origins amongst the Greeks (Socrates) and Romans (Seneca) is now primarily practiced in America; elsewhere in the world, including Europe, students generally study along single-subject, pre-professional tracks. Outside of the west, earlier experiments in liberal education (she cites Tagore's Visva-Bharati college at Santineketan) have now entirely given way to pre-professional training. Nonetheless, Nussbaum argues, a new phase of experimentation with liberal education is occurring, by countries eager to strengthen their democratic foundations.

All of Nussbaum's basic statements defining liberal education seem right to me, though I have questions about the application of her ideas. Liberals education is 1) development of tools for critical thinking and analytical argument, 2) a sense of themselves as first and foremost human (rather than a member of a particular group), and 3) a capacity for "imaginative understanding" of the perspective of others. One could quibble that (3) is really a subset of (1), but in effect what Nussbaum means by imaginative understanding is something that comes outside of pure rhetorical argument -- one could think of it as a capacity for sympathy. So in that sense imaginative understanding is indeed different from critical thinking.

(As a sidenote, I wonder if it is really possible to cultivate sympathy through formal education. I've had too many peers -- and now, students -- who sat through classes on one or another form of exploitation, but failed to derive any capacity for sympathy. Perhaps, then, it is a matter of temperament, and no amount of exposure to Socrates, Rousseau, and George Eliot is likely to change it. Rousseau's Emile doesn't help us here, since unlike Rousseau's ideal teacher-parent, most of us only get 2-3 hours a week with our students, for four months a pop, and we have to be realistic about what we can accomplish through a species of limited interaction.)

It is in the specific application of Nussbaum's approach to liberal education -- what she hopes it will accomplish -- that some questions emerge for me. Specifically, I wonder about how she connects the cultivation of deliberative thinking to democractic process.

The idea of liberal education is attractive to both Americans and non-Americans, first, because it places the accent on the creation of a critical public culture, through an emphasis on analytical thinking, argumentation, and active participation in debate. . . . All modern democracies are prone to hasty and sloppy thinking and to the substitution of invective for argument. A classroom that teaches the virtues of critical analysis and respectful debate can go at least some way to form citizens for a more deliberative democracy. Deliberative democracy is badly needed inside each country. But it is all the more urgently needed if we are ever to create, together, a world community to work on the solution to urgent problems.

One objection that can be raised is whether, even in the U.S., liberal education has contributed in any way to the formation of a "critical public culture." Further, if it isn't present in the U.S., where all of the most prestigious institutions of post-secondary education are firmly driven by liberal principles, why should liberal education help Kuwait, India, or Malaysia? The public culture we have, actually, is plagued by a total lack of any authoritative voices; no one is around to adjudicate, for instance, whether the scientific consensus on events such as global warming leads means that "global warming is real," if a few politician-businessmen decide they would prefer to disagree.

Another question that comes up is whether educational systems really have a direct effect on the political systems of the countries where they operate. One is forced to pose the connection in terms of "culture," since there is no apparent causal connection. This leads to another objection: what happens if liberal education at the higher levels is reserved (as it is in the United States) for the wealthy? Only slightly more than 50% of Americans go to college, and many of those gain technical and pre-professional degrees. If liberal education is reserved for people who go to Harvard, does that further democracy?

If we compare the Indian and the American educational systems, we see some more arguments against "universalizing" liberal education, but also one or two very powerful arguments for it. Many people who grow up in the Indian system (i.e., who didn't go to one of the fancy boarding schools like Woodstock or the Doon School ) actually fiercely defend the pre-professional orientation of the system. It is cheaper, and it gets people out in the work place, earning salaries, much faster.

But it is also apparent that, in the global labor marketplace, the liberal system has advantages not because of its tendency to foster a "culture" of democracy, but because it may actually help professionals do their jobs better. I hear this from many software engineers. At a technical level, the top Indian schools are competitive with MIT and Stanford. But in terms of imagining new or radical solutions to problems -- thinking in cross-disciplinary ways -- the U.S. educated engineers have a definite advantage. That is why the most important technical innovation, at least in the computer industry, remains inside the U.S. at a time when labor is shifting abroad.

So perhaps Nussbaum is right about the value of the liberal system after all. But is it possible she is right for the wrong reasons?

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