Can majoring in philosophy make you a better person?
By Amy Willis
That’s a question that EconTalk host Russ Roberts poses to University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum in this week’s EconTalk episode.* Roberts expresses his concern that we’ve lost sight of character development in the modern age, and wonders whether the pursuit of philosophy and the humanities more broadly might mitigate that problem.
In response, Nussbaum gives an assessment and an appeal for the Humanities in universities today. She says:
So, the Humanities–I actually am not as much of a pessimist as you seem to be, because I’ve just done a new edition of my book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. And, for that, I looked at a lot of data. And, in fact, in our country, where in fact crucial, that we have a liberal arts system, so people study humanities sometimes as Humanities majors, but even if not, they’ll study it in their required general education courses. There’s actually a pretty robust increase in Humanities enrollments: particularly in community colleges enrollments in the Humanities are way up. And, as I mentioned, in adult continuing education, huge upward surge. So, I am not such a pessimist. I think people need–they feel a thirst for meaning. And it’s a very important thing that you don’t have to make that your whole life. You could say, ‘I’m going to major in computer science because that’s where I think the jobs are.’ Although, not entirely true: I think there are actually more unemployed computer science majors than unemployed English majors. But anyway, you can do what you want to do. And, still prepare yourself for the whole of life by taking Humanities courses. And we are so lucky that we have this system. Our country, Scotland, Canada, South Korea–those are the only countries that have that liberal arts system. In most countries of the world, like all of Europe, basically, except for Scotland; and in all of Asia, you have to choose, when you enter university, one subject. And then you do only that. So, it’s either all Philosophy, or no philosophy; all Literature, or no literature. And so, in that context, it’s not surprising that parents and kids are scared. And they think: ‘Well, what am I going to do, if I do 3 years of nothing but Philosophy? What am I equipped for?’ Well, I don’t think they should have to make that choice. Now, there are pockets to resistance to that in the rest of the world. So, for example, all the Jesuit universities in Latin America and elsewhere are basically on the Liberal Arts model. But I really think that’s the right way for all universities to be. Because, university education has a two-fold purpose. It prepares you for a career; but it also prepares you for being a good citizen and having a complete, meaningful life. And those are both important purposes. But, we are lucky, anyway, that our university system does preserve that sense.
I’m curious…For how many of you does that describe your own university experience? (I will note that Nussbaum earlier makes a similar appeal to exploration in the sciences…but only “really deep science, not just applied money-oriented science…”.) There’s been much in the media on the demise of the liberal arts in our universities…Are you as sanguine as Nussbaum about their future? Or is their proper place somewhere other than the university?
* This reflect only a snippet of this episode; I have purposely highlighted this pointed discussion about the value of leisure and the liberal arts here. The rest of the episode is an equally engaging discussion of Alexander Hamilton and the Herculean choice between a life of fame or a life of virtue. It’s one of my favorites this year, and I recommend it heartily.