… is the arts and humanities (of course!)
This month in deepest, darkest PhD land, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be good and whether it’s possible to educate ourselves (and others) in the business of knowing what is right and putting our money where our mouth is.
If in doubt, have a word with Aristotle.
To know what is good and to do it is to be wise in a particular kind of way according to Aristotle. He talked about Phronēsis or Practical Wisdom, wisdom that is the consequence of experience. Practical wisdom is concerned with the particular, unique situations that we encounter in our daily experiences. It’s not the kind of wisdom that makes general abstract rules – the kind of wisdom we encounter in maths or science. Practical wisdom is not just a matter of intellectual wisdom; it is also emotional and imaginative. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics)
There has been a long history in philosophical thought of trying to construct an account of what it is to be good that apes science in its precision, neatness and simplicity and disparages the emotional and the imaginative. Some ethical thinkers have concentrated on trying to identify and measure a single, unifying ethical value (such as pleasure) hoping that by doing so we can calculate what is right, just as we might calculate GDP. Other thinkers have composed elegant principles, which if followed, promise to deliver ethical results every time, or your money back.
I think these attempts are flawed; they neglect to think about the role of practical wisdom in our every day moral decision-making, According to Aristotle, people of practical wisdom, will ‘cultivate emotion and imagination in themselves and others and will be very careful not to rely too heavily on a technical or purely intellectual theory that might stifle or impede these responses’ (Nussbaum, Love’s Knowldege).
The implications for education is that we all need to broaden our experience. But how? As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it: “[People of practical wisdom] will promote as education that cultivates fancy and feeling through the works of literature and history”
Recognising what is good and how to be good, requires a particular kind of rich, inimitable and personal experience. It seems plain to me that the arts and humanities offer these experiences like no other. Whether it’s seeing through the eyes of Peep Show’s Mark Corrigan when his Blackberry is stolen by a bunch of yoofs. Or the story of a Jewish woman volunteering herself to the gas chamber to comfort a small boy as depicted by Vasily Grossman in his epic (admittedly still unread) Life and Fate.
From the ridiculous to the sublime, engagement in the arts and humanities is most people’s ethics education. ‘A large part of learning takes place in the experience of the concrete. This experiential learning, in turn, requires the cultivation of perception and responsiveness: the ability to read a situation, singling out what is relevant for thought and action.'(Nussbaum)
Aristotelian education aimed at producing citizens who are perceivers. It aimed at bringing these basic abilities to full actuality. As both Aristotle and Periclean Athens insisted, the core of this education will be found ‘in what we now call “the humanities” – the qualitatively rich study of human life through works of art and literature, and through the study of history, and through humanistic forms of social inquiry.’ (Nussbaum)
Through a wide variety of experiences, among them the experience of engagement with the the arts and humanities, we want to help people become ‘finely aware and richly responsible [people] on whom nothing is lost’ (Henry James, The Princess Casamassima)
I was really saddened to read this in Nussbaum’s work (written in the late eighties):
[An Aristotelian conception of moral education through the humanities] would mean, for example, a public education policy that moves in a direction roughly opposite to that now being taken by the Thatcher government in Britain, where humanistic studies (and also basic scientific inquiry) are being demoted and squeezed in favour of the development of technical and entrepreneurial abilities.
The brilliant aforementioned Peep Show episode
Radio Four’s adaptation of Life and Fate
Martha Nussbaum’s Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics online
Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima online
This post is by Grace