Teaching Humanity; in Our Globalized World, an Arts Education Is More Crucial Than Ever as a Way to Cultivate Sympathy for Others

Article excerpt

Byline: Martha Nussbaum (Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago.)

We live in a world that is dominated by the profit motive--which suggests to concerned citizens that education in science and technology is crucially important to the future success of their nations. I have no objection to good scientific and technical education, and I don't wish to suggest that nations should stop trying to improve it. But I worry that other abilities, equally crucial, are at risk of getting lost in the competitive flurry. The abilities associated with the humanities and the arts are also vital, both to the health of individual nations and to the creation of a decent world culture. These include the ability to think critically, to transcend local loyalties and to approach international problems as a "citizen of the world." And, perhaps most important, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.

This essential ability can be called the narrative imagination: it leads us to be intelligent readers of other people's stories and to understand their emotions and wishes. The cultivation of sympathy was a central public task of ancient Athenian tragedy, and thus a key element in ancient Greek democracy; it has also informed the best modern ideas of progressive education in both Western and non-Western traditions. (American John Dewey and Rabindranath Tagore in India had very similar ideas about the importance of arts education.) One of the best ways to cultivate sympathy is through instruction in literature, music, theater, fine art and dance.

Each culture--indeed, each student--has blind spots: groups within it or abroad that are especially likely to be treated ignorantly or obtusely. A good arts education will select works specifically to promote criticism of this obtuseness, and a better vision of the unseen. Ralph Ellison, in an introduction to a new edition of his 1952 novel "Invisible Man," wrote that such a novel could be "a raft of perception, hope, and entertainment," on which American culture could "negotiate the snags and whirlpools" between us and our democratic ideals. Through the imagination we can have insight into the experience of another group or person that it is difficult to attain in daily life--particularly when our world has constructed suspicions and divisions that make any encounter difficult.

To cultivate our students' "inner eyes" we need carefully crafted instruction in the arts and humanities, which will bring students into contact with issues of gender, race, ethnicity and cross-cultural experience. The arts also instruct students in both freedom and community. When people put on a play or a dance piece together, they learn to cooperate--and find they must go beyond tradition and authority if they are going to express themselves well. The sort of community created by the arts is nonhierarchical--a model of the responsiveness and interactivity that a good democracy will also foster in its political processes. And, not least, the arts can be a great source of joy. Participating in plays, songs and dances fills children with happiness that can carry over into the rest of their education.

Moreover, this element of joy--of sheer fun--can help the arts to offer a venue for exploring difficult issues without crippling and counterproductive anxiety. …