By Emily Blackner
This August, ΦBK will honor scholar Martha Nussbaum at the 43rd Triennial Council. She will receive the Sidney Hook Memorial Award, which ΦBK gives to a single scholar in recognition of distinction in scholarship, undergraduate teaching, and leadership in the cause of liberal arts education. For Nussbaum, this scholarship includes work in the humanities, the Classics, law and political philosophy, and economics, making her a true Renaissance woman.
Nussbaum has taught at such prestigious institutions as Oxford, Brown, and Harvard, and she is currently the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. She is also a prolific author, writing in several of her fields. Notable works include From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, and Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.
Cultivating Humanity received the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Education in 2002 for its advocacy of “ideas that have potential to bring about significant improvement in educational practice and advances in educational attainment,” according to the award website. In its pages, Nussbaum praises the incorporation of cross-cultural studies in liberal education. Using a novel approach combining examples she gleaned from her studies of modern-day campuses with the philosophies of Classical intellectuals like Seneca and Cicero, Nussbaum shows how courses in non-traditional, multicultural areas of study help schools to achieve liberal education goals.
Reviewers have noted that in the course of her book, Nussbaum found these philosophers to have “a much richer and more subtle moral and political theory than they are usually given credit for,” in the words of Ben Rogers of The Independent on Sunday. In this way, she contributed to the scholarly understanding of these philosophers at the same time as she advocated liberal education. S. Robert Barth has said that Cultivating Humanity “is as important a book on the nature and needs of higher education as [he has] read in the past decade.”
Nussbaum’s most recent book, Not for Profit, was written in order to demonstrate the necessity of the humanities in education. She argues that current liberal arts education will better meet the needs of students in the modern world if humanities aren’t cut. The book is “a model of public philosophy,” writes The Philosophers’ Magazine’s Julian Baggini, accessible to many demographics. Nussbaum “is always careful to argue for her conclusions as fully as is compatible with brevity and accessibility,” avoiding the pitfalls of the appeal to emotion fallacy and therefore lending credibility to her arguments.
Her points about the inadequacy of education which focuses only on graduates’ career prospects echoes her earlier work in economics. In collaboration with other scholars, Nussbaum pioneered the “capabilities approach” to economic development. This approach looks at human dignity and the capabilities it entails, such as the capability to live to old age, engage in economic transactions, and participate in political discourse, as the hallmarks of economic development, instead of mere economic growth. Nussbaum’s work brought questions of human rights and justice into the study of economic development in ways that had never been explored before.
Not for Profit won the Prince Asturias prize just this past May. The prize is Spain’s award for “creative works or research” in one of several social science fields that “constitutes a significant contribution to the benefit of mankind.” The panel that selected Nussbaum declared her to be “one of the most innovative and influential voices of modern philosophy.”
For her part, Nussbaum viewed the award in terms of its meaning for her fields of study. “It is a recognition that work on such abstract philosophical topics as social justice, human development, and the nature of the emotions can contribute to the creation of a more humane and just world,” she said.
Throughout her career, Nussbaum has been promoting liberal education, and through it the human rights and ethics she values. As her works demonstrate, this “committed proponent of human freedom” (in the words of Giorgio Baruchello) is worthy of ΦBK’s Sidney Hook Memorial Award.
Emily Blackner is a senior at Washington College majoring in English and political science. Washington College is home to the Theta of Maryland chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
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