Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities


In this short and powerful book, celebrated philosopher Martha Nussbaum makes a passionate case for the importance of the liberal arts at all levels of education.

Historically, the humanities have been central to education because they have been seen as essential for creating competent democratic citizens. But recently, Nussbaum argues, thinking about the aims of education has gone disturbingly awry in the United States and abroad. We increasingly treat education as though its primary goal were to teach students to be economically productive rather than to think critically and become knowledgeable and empathetic citizens. This shortsighted focus on profitable skills has eroded our ability to criticize authority, reduced our sympathy with the marginalized and different, and damaged our competence to deal with complex global problems. And the loss of these basic capacities jeopardizes the health of democracies and the hope of a decent world.

In response to this dire situation, Nussbaum argues that we must resist efforts to reduce education to a tool of the gross national product. Rather, we must work to reconnect education to the humanities in order to give students the capacity to be true democratic citizens of their countries and the world.

Drawing on the stories of troubling--and hopeful--educational developments from around the world, Nussbaum offers a manifesto that should be a rallying cry for anyone who cares about the deepest purposes of education.


The humanities and arts play a central role in the history of democracy, and yet today many parents are ashamed of children who study literature or art. Literature and philosophy have changed the world, but parents all over the world are more likely to fret if their children are financially illiterate than if their training in the humanities is deficient. Even at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School—the school that gave birth to philosopher John Dewey’s path-breaking experiments in democratic education reform—many parents worry that their children are not being schooled enough for financial success.

In Not for Profit, Nussbaum alerts us to a “silent crisis” in which nations “discard skills” as they “thirst for national profit.” As the arts and humanities are everywhere downsized, there is a serious erosion of the very qualities that are essential to democracy itself. Nussbaum reminds us that great educators and nation-builders understood how the arts and humanities teach children the critical thinking that is necessary for independent action and for intelligent resistance to the power of blind tradition and authority. Students of art and literature also learn to imagine the situations of others, a capacity that is essential for a successful democracy, a necessary cultivation of our “inner eyes.”

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