Connections and Capabilities
A visit by Martha Nussbaum emphasizes society’s need for the liberal arts
Martha Nussbaum’s books and lectures connect many disciplines, continents, and thousands of years of intellectual thought. And when she visited UNC Asheville this spring, Nussbaum brought together scholars from at least seven different universities in the region who took advantage of the opportunity to hear her in person and exchange ideas.
Nussbaum’s writing and ideas have major importance for UNC Asheville’s students, says Humanities Lecturer Grace Campbell, UNC Asheville’s 2010 Distinguished Teacher of the Year. “There is not a student crossing the stage at a UNC Asheville commencement who has not read Martha Nussbaum,” said Campbell. “Her ideas are fundamental to our curriculum.”
Nussbaum is best known for her work on the “capabilities approach”—a way of evaluating quality of life meant to, in Nussbaum’s words, “supplant gross national product per capita with a measure that focuses more on people and what they can do and can be.” Nussbaum has collaborated with Indian economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in this work, and the United Nations now uses the capabilities-based Human Development Index as a metric in its policy discussions.
“It is a universal approach,” said Sushmita Chatterjee, Appalachian State University assistant professor of Women’s Studies, Government and Justice Studies who drove to Asheville from Boone to hear Nussbaum, along with two faculty colleagues. “There is an empathy that doesn’t restrict itself by any borders.”
Nussbaum has a standing relationship with UNC Asheville—she received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the university in 2005 and mentored Brian Butler, UNC Asheville’s Chair of Philosophy, during graduate school. Her public talk in Lipinsky Auditorium drew more than 400 people on an April Saturday afternoon, and approximately 100 people took part in her Sunday morning discussion with students and faculty.
“I’ve read excerpts of her work in philosophy, humanities … many of my classes,” said Joe Kellum, a senior philosophy major who attended both events. “It’s an amazing opportunity to hear her talk and answer questions.”
The author of more than 25 books, Nussbaum’s theme on Saturday was her 2010 work, “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities” (Princeton University Press). “I want to send a message that we are all going to be in trouble if we don’t preserve and strengthen liberal education,” said Nussbaum. “That is my mission and that’s why I’m here.”
Nussbaum noted the challenges to funding for the humanities, and called upon its supporters, including students, to reach out to the public. “There are lots of misconceptions about what goes on in higher education,” said Nussbaum. “When I’m on talk shows, even on CSPAN Book TV, I get a lot of calls saying, ‘Aren’t people being indoctrinated with socialism in higher education?’ Speaking to those misconceptions, talking about what you do, what you learn, who you are, is part of what keeps this system healthy.”
“It is hard to express the value of humanities and the liberal arts in a world that perhaps doesn’t have the language for appreciating them or is more concerned about very particular training,” said senior philosophy and religious studies major John Fate Faherty after Nussbaum’s talk. “There is so much promotion of a technology-oriented economy, but that kind of innovation has usually been associated with very creative thinking, with Renaissance men or women, with liberal arts education.”
“We’ve had discussions in the statewide faculty assembly about how to convince the state legislature that the humanities matter,” said Jill Ehnenn, recent chair of the Faculty Senate and associate professor of English at Appalachian State University, who appreciated Nussbaum’s message. “When you cut education in the humanities, you get students in business, in medicine, in other areas that people think are practical but who really cannot perform as well as they need to. The humanities are really vital and that message needs to go out as often as possible.”
Nussbaum embodies the interdisciplinary nature of liberal arts education; she is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, where she holds appointments in the Philosophy Department, Law School and Divinity School. She has taught at Harvard, Brown and Oxford Universities.
Her Sunday question-and-answer session for students and faculty began with the capabilities approach and its application to a wide range of issues, from education to animal rights. Eventually, the discussion branched into links between the humanities and social sciences, between Greek tragedies and current political challenges, and brought critical questions from UNC Asheville’s faculty on Nussbaum’s views on war, peace and national service.
“I was really pleased to witness them hashing it out in their academic stances,” said Liz Sweitzer, a senior anthropology major. “That’s the core of the Socratic method of approaching dilemmas and what the humanities can teach us.”
Nussbaum’s appearances at UNC Asheville were sponsored by these UNC Asheville programs and offices: the National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Professorship, the Office of the Provost, the Associate Provost, the Deans of Humanities, Natural and Social Sciences, the Center for Jewish Studies, the departments of Classics, Drama, Fine Art, History, Literature and Language, Philosophy, and Religious Studies, Arts and Ideas, the UNC Asheville Humanities Program and the Office of the Chancellor.