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Book Review

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

With our seemingly all-encompassing emphasis on economic growth, our modern society has increasingly come to assess and administer educational programs as though the primary goal was to teach students to be productive—that is, earn money—rather than to think critically and become knowledgeable and empathetic citizens. This 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.
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 both in the United States and abroad. Anxiously focused on national economic growth, 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.
In response to this situation, Nussbaum argues that we must resist efforts to reduce education to a tool of the gross national product. Rather, she writes, 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.
The last few years have provided ample object lessons to show what can happen when people in powerful positions lose touch with the rest of humanity and focus solely on making money. Nussbaum offers a manifesto that could become a rallying cry for others who are concerned that our educational institutions are becoming constricted—and distorted—by myopically focusing solely on jobs and the economy.