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Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education Paperback – October 31, 1998

ISBN-13: 978-0674179493 ISBN-10: 0674179498 Edition: Reprint

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (October 31, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674179498
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674179493
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.3 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #163,376 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Multiculturalism is often attacked in higher education as either a bankrupt moral relativism or an anti-white-male power play. In Cultivating Humanity, philosopher Martha Nussbaum draws on some dead white males, namely Socrates, Seneca, and Cicero, to defend diversity studies in higher education. Nussbaum examines diversity programs in universities across America and finds that by coupling diversity studies with rigorous philosophical inquiry the programs are quite successful at accomplishing their mission: to turn out citizens well-grounded in their own culture and with the rational capacity and empathy to understand and explore differing points of view. For anyone who questions the necessity of a liberal education in a university curriculum, Cultivating Humanity is required reading. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Nussbaum provides an accessible examination of recent curricular reforms. Her assessments are enriched by a detailed discussion of the development of specific courses at a wide range of "test case" colleges and universities. Extreme partisans in the "culture wars" will take little comfort in Nussbaum's dispassionate defense of Socratic education and citizenship. But general readers, those interested in thinking about the larger purpose of higher education and how this country's colleges and universities are both fulfilling and failing that mission, will find Nussbaum's assessment both reassuring and challenging. Perhaps most important, her articulation of the classical ideal of "cultivating humanity" will serve as a valuable guidepost for directing future reforms. (Timothy P. Duffy Washington Post)

The best answer to attacks on multiculturalism can be found in Martha C. Nussbaum's Cultivating Humanity. The book is a passionate, closely argued and classical defense of multiculturalism: drawing on the ideas of Socrates, the Stoics and Seneca (from whom she derives her title), she steers a narrow course between cranky traditionalists and anti-Western radicals who would reject her Socratic method out of hand...[The] book is a formidable, perhaps definitive defense of diversity on American campuses. (James Shapiro New York Times Book Review)

[A] judicious and empirically grounded defence of recent curricular innovations...Martha Nussbaum's book moves beyond the wars over PC and the curriculum, transcending the terms in which they were fought...[H]er report should end the tired brandishing of caricatures that has marked the academic culture wars. (Dennis Wrong Times Literary Supplement)

Over the last decade or so, Nussbaum's work has gone off in a new...direction and one that once again draws on her remarkable feeling for the ancient world. She started reading the Stoics...Nussbaum discovered in Cicero, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius a much richer and more subtle moral and political theory than they are usually given credit for. More importantly, perhaps, they prompted her to start thinking about what the Stoics' ideals of global citizenship--their belief in the fundamental equality of all people--would look like in practice. The results can be seen in her insistence, in Cultivating Humanity, on the importance of a multi-cultural liberal education which opens its students to alternative values and traditions. (Ben Rogers Independent on Sunday)

Cultivating Humanity is the most potent salvo yet in the academic culture wars launched back in 1987 by Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind. Nussbaum reveals herself to be an expert practitioner of intellectual judo, taking the most powerful thrusts of the opposition and using them to stake out an eminently sensible defense of ongoing reform in higher education. (Scott Stossel Boston Phoenix)

Nussbaum has succeeded in saying something fresh, forceful, and interesting about curricular reform and the culture wars. Cultivating Humanity is persuasively argued, philosophically well-grounded, and firmly based on Nussbaum's own experiences as a visitor, lecturer, and teacher at a wide range of colleges and universities. She draws upon the best elements of current work in feminism and the study of race and ethnicity even as she calls attention to excesses and errors in new pedagogy and scholarship that need to be remedied...Throughout Cultivating Humanity (the title adapts a phrase from the Stoic philosopher Seneca), Nussbaum emphasizes reason, careful argument, logical analysis, self-questioning, the pursuit of truth and objectivity, and critical inquiry. (William E. Cain Boston Sunday Globe)

One of the strengths of Cultivating Humanity is that it explores the conflict between authority and reason explicitly--even if it doesn't entirely resolve it. Nussbaum's untrammeled confidence in both the universality of reason and the diversity of human life makes hers a challenging and novel book, one that strongly endorses multicultural study while distancing itself from nearly everything typically associated with it, including postmodernism, identity politics, and the critique of philosophical universalism...If her book is read as carefully and as sympathetically as it was written, it just might give humanism a good name in the academy again...For secular intellectuals who agree that the unexamined life is not worth living, it seems only human to hope that Nussbaum's vision of higher education will guide American universities in the twenty-first century. (Michael Bérubé Lingua Franca)

Nussbaum is a culture warrior who earned her stripes defending universities from charges of caving in to the demands of politically correct multiculturalists. In this vigorous response to critics, Nussbaum adopts an unusual approach in her defense of the college-level multicultural curriculum. Instead of casting multicultural instruction as a type of payback for the sins of Western racism and sexism, she artfully argues how the Western philosophical tradition itself leads directly to a multicultural agenda...Nussbaum's arguments are convincing. She is careful to avoid the pitfalls of cultural relativism, and there is no debating the cosmopolitan effects of the educational process she supports. Her work is a welcome addition to the ongoing debate about culture and curriculum. (Publishers Weekly)

Nussbaum's wide ranging discussion of liberal education and its evolution at the end of the century is both thoughtful and concrete. She supports the idea of liberal education, suggesting that it should be shaped by institutional realities at individual colleges and universities, and by broader intellectual trends in American and world society...Nussbaum does not have a specific program to promote. Rather, she reflects on the state of American undergraduate education and advocates continued change and reform as part of a commitment to the core values of liberal education. (P.G. Altbach Choice)

If Socrates had come back to help us think through the culture wars, he would have written Martha Nussbaum's brilliant, grounded book. (Vartan Gregorian, President Emeritus, Brown University)

Martha Nussbaum has skillfully used her familiarity with the classics of Western philosophy, particularly the ideas of Socrates and Seneca, to demonstrate both the educational aptness and the imperative importance of the study of non-Western cultures, gender, and race in liberal education today. Her study provides an excellent refutation of the views of those who would mummify the great authors of the past instead of learning and teaching in their true and timeless spirit. This is a valuable guidebook for educating "citizens of the world." (Nannerl O. Keohane, President, Duke University)

Cultivating Humanity is as important a book on the nature and needs of higher education as I have read in the past decade. Deeply grounded in classical thought, it demonstrates a remarkable openness to the ongoing experience of human history and culture. This is a book not only of luminous intelligence, but of compassion and love. (J. Robert Barth, S.J., Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Boston College)

Martha Nussbaum defends a Socratic view of education, which places the examined life at its heart. Her vision also has elements rooted in Stoic cosmopolitanism and stresses the centrality of the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself. Because she is not only a fine philosopher but also a distinguished classicist, Nussbaum roots her argument in a serious defense of the deep continuing relevance of classics. This is a marvelous book, which should be read by all who care about the present and the future of the university. (K. Anthony Appiah, Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy, Harvard University)

This is a vital, timely, and much needed contribution to the debate on the nature of undergraduate education. Few people are more qualified than Martha Nussbaum to write on this topic. Here she manages to combine a fine appreciation of what the past teaches us, and what we need to create for the future of liberal education. (Walter E. Massey, President, Morehouse College)

More About the Author

Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, appointed in Law, Philosophy, and Divinity.

Author photo by Robin Holland

Customer Reviews

3.2 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Katherine Katsenis on June 26, 2004
Format: Paperback
This book, like all of Nussbaum's is intelligent, well written and worthy of your time. But it is not without flaws. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education argues in favor of the current trends in eliminating the traditional "western canon" as it has been understood. Critics have come at Nussbuam from nearly every conceivable front, claiming that she argues that education is ultimately political, that she provides ineffectual anecdotal evidence from America's top-tier and well-funded universities, that she aims to destroy the western perspective and finally, that she is idealistic and unpractical.
Each of these points is well founded but lack viable impetus unless one other element of Nussbaum's argument is noticed. Namely, that Nussbaum's book is a book about critical thinking skills and how they are taught in our nation's universities. The peripheral issues of gender, class and ethnicity, (where most of Nussbaum's critics attack), must been seen under the overall issue of education's primary purpose, namely, to produce rational thinkers. Thus, her thesis is much more about cultivating rationality and less about carrying a torch against the Western Canon.
To explain how rationality is to be cultivated, Nussbaum devotes much of her efforts to getting clear on what it means to be a "world citizen". This discussion is thoughtful and informative, even if you ultimately disagree with her. Yet, embedded in this detailed examination are serious assumptions about morality, which many other critics have noticed as well. She breezes through claims about avoiding "retributive anger", being "empathetic" and being "non-violent"; which prima facie sound reasonable.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By AmericanDreamer on December 15, 2009
Format: Paperback
I did not read this book as amounting to a bashing of the Enlightenment canon at all. Rather, it struck me as an all-too-uncommon commonsensical, middle-ground position, well articulated, on controversy over multiculturalism. Reading some of these negative reviews leaves me scratching my head wondering whether these reviewers and I read the same book. I understood Nussbaum to be offering a "both/and" approach that would retain teaching of the "dead white men" Western canon but add to it the best of voices from other traditions.

The practical difficulties of doing this seem obvious enough: what to leave out, then? Unless she is advocating more time spent in college curricula on humanities studies and/or more required courses than is the case in many colleges and universities for undergrads these days. I did not see arguments for either of those points of view so one question would be how to implement her suggestions even if one agrees with them? There is only so much time in a day and so much space in a curriculum. Passionate subject-matter advocates ultimately weaken their case when they don't say what should be taught less.

Still, Nussbaum is asking powerful questions and contributing what I see as all-too-infrequent well-stated middle-ground fodder to inform these discussions. So even if you find her case unpersuasive this book should help you clarify your own views on this subject.
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25 of 33 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 10, 2001
Format: Paperback
Inasmuch as this book is an account of Nussbaum's research on the success of muticultural education at a few dozen American universities, it will be read as a challenge to the doom-saying conservatives who argue that education has gone to Hell since we abandoned the Great Books tradition of the Fifties. And it works rather well as such: as well as she can while writing for a lay audience, she confronts the likes of Alan Bloom on their own terms, demonstrating that there's a lot to be said for seeing muticultural education as an extension, rather than a betrayal, of the Western Philosophical Tradition. But what's interesting is her intolerance of hypocrisy on the Left as well as the Right: she denounces the excesses of Afrocentrism and the self-validating fantasies of academic feminism as well as any conservative editorialist. She's very much her own woman, and a public moralist in the best sense.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Richard Wood on September 26, 2002
Format: Paperback
I'm not enough of a scholar to evaluate Nussbaums's treatment of "The Clouds" or Rousseau (are you?) but her treatment of the major topics is thought provoking -- and thus the book is well worth reading.

The only significant flaws I stumbled upon were her dismissal of the paradox of democratic change, and of the objections of ideology.

The former: when is a minority (perhaps 'elite') position a legimate corrective/adjustment to a democracy, and when is it an extemist and illegitimate distraction? The astonishing fact is that the problem in distinguishing one from the other interferes greatly with Nussbaum's laudatory depictions of "diversity" education, without providing even a hint of the underlying dilemma. For instance, arguments against racial bigotry are implicity conflated, in Nussbaum's book, with arguments against homosexuality. Personally, I agree with this... but how is a *democracy* to arrive at such a conculsion? Any controversy must, inevitably, be advocated at first by a minority. When is such a minority to be granted the academic privilege (as Gender Studies have, in todays University) and when not (as the 'pro-life' or 'creationist' perspectives)? Nussbaum completely ignores the problem, treating the liberal perspective as the only rational one.

This is related to the latter problematique: sometime a "received" doctrine [...] discerns a threat in the argument for "diversity". To a liberal, this perspective seems absurd. But where is the line to be drawn? If an alien culture (or domestic minority) were to advocate something extreme -- perhaps human sacrifice or infant euthanasia? How are 'believers' to discern which moral positions are too extreme to be defenced (bias against miscegenation; homosexual behavior) and which are defensible? (suttee? abortion?) Nussbaum provides no guidance; nor -- more importantly -- does she elaborate on how the academy is to respond to questions regarding such a delineation.
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