Martha Nussbaum on the Humanities


Last night in Washington D.C., University of Chicago philosopher delivered the 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture.  Several Messiah College students and faculty were in attendance.

I did some delayed tweeting of the talk last night @johnfea1.  I used the #jefflec17 hashtag.

If you don’t have time to watch the lecture or check the tweets, you may want to read Nussbaum’s interview with NEH chair Williams Adams in Humanities magazine.  Here is a taste:

WILLIAM D. ADAMS: Your book Not for Profit made the case for the importance of the humanities in American democratic life. Have things changed substantially since it was published in 2010?

MARTHA C. NUSSBAUM: Data on humanities majors is still a source of concern, but there’s been a big increase in total enrollments in humanities courses in community colleges. And in adult education, too, there’s been a huge upsurge. The preface to the new edition of my book gives data and sources on all this.

We are lucky in the United States to have our liberal arts system. In most countries, if you go to university, you have to decide for all English literature or no literature, all philosophy or no philosophy. But we have a system that is one part general education and one part specialization. If your parents say you’ve got to major in computer science, you can do that. But you can also take general education courses in the humanities, and usually you have to.

ADAMS: Yet I’ve sensed some weakening of our resolve to support the liberal arts. What should we be doing to reinforce your way of thinking about higher education?

NUSSBAUM: There are three points you can make. The one I think should be front and center is that the humanities prepare students to be good citizens and help them understand a complicated, interlocking world. The humanities teach us critical thinking, how to analyze arguments, and how to imagine life from the point of view of someone unlike yourself.

Secondly, we need to emphasize their economic value. Business leaders love the humanities because they know that to innovate you need more than rote knowledge. You need a trained imagination.

Singapore and China, which don’t want to encourage democratic citizenship, are expanding their humanities curricula. These reforms are all about developing a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

But the humanities also teach us the value, even for business, of criticism and dissent. When there’s a culture of going along to get along, where whistleblowers are discouraged, bad things happen and businesses implode.

The third point is about the search for meaning. Life is about more than earning a living, and if you’re not in the habit of thinking about it, you can end up middle-aged or even older and shocked to realize that your life seems empty.

Read the entire interview here.

And here is a shot of the Messiah College contingency in Washington, courtesy of Pete Powers’s Facebook page:


Messiah College First Year Humanities Scholars Take Colonial Philadelphia

Flag at the Betsy Ross house

Last Saturday I led nine members of the inaugural class of the Messiah College Humanities Scholars Program on a day-long journey through colonial and revolutionary-era Philadelphia.

I am privileged to get to work at a place that takes the humanities seriously.  Messiah College is a comprehensive college.  That means that we have both liberal arts and professional programs (think nursing and engineering). While many comprehensive colleges and universities are investing in the development of professional programs at the expense of the humanities, the leadership of Messiah College–President Kim Phipps, Provost Randy Basinger, and Dean Peter Powers, the architect of the Humanities Scholars Program–have decided to counter declining enrollments in the humanities with an all out effort to recruit more students in history, foreign languages, philosophy, religion, English, etc… (And this is only the start of our effort to revive the humanities on campus–stay tuned).

The Humanities Scholars Program offers modest scholarships to students interested in majoring in a humanities discipline. These students also participate in a host of programs on campus related to the humanities over the course of their four years at Messiah College..  One of those perks is a free tour of early Philadelphia with yours truly. The students also received a free copy of my Was American Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  The book served as the foundation of the Philadelphia tour.

We had a fun and educational day. I have given a lot of tours of colonial and revolutionary-era Philadelphia.  Some of them are pretty basic, others more academic.  I warned the students in advance that I wanted to challenge them intellectually throughout the course of the tour.  I spent a lot of time offering mini-lectures and reading from primary sources.  For example, when we arrived at the corner of Second and Market Street, the site of the old City Hall, I read to them Benjamin Franklin’s account of George Whitefield preaching and the former’s attempt to estimate how many people could hear the evangelical preacher’s booming voice.  At Christ Church I read the story of Rector James Ambercrombie’s attempt to publicly rebuke President George Washington for not participating in the sacrament of communion.

At the end of the day we walked into Society Hill and had a great meal at Pizzeria Stella on Second and Lombard.  I highly recommend it.

Here were the places we visited:

  • Welcome Park: Where the students walked the grid of Penn’s city painted on the park grounds
  • City Tavern: Where the members of the Continental Congress drank and ate.
  • The First Bank of the United States:  Where we discussed Alexander Hamilton
  • Carpenter’s Hall: Where the First Continental Congress met in 1774.  Also learned a bit about flemish bond and the artisan culture of Philadelphia
  • The site of Anthony Benezet’s Quaker school for African children
  • The site of Benjamin Franklin’s house and print shop
  • The Second National Bank: Which is now an amazing Founding Fathers portrait gallery
  • The American Philosophical Society
  • Independence Hall
  • The Liberty Bell
  • The President’s House (and the slave quarters below)
  • The Free Quaker Meeting House
  • Benjamin Franklin’s grave:  Where I gave a brief lecture on the limits of the Enlightenment
  • The Arch Street Quaker Meetinghouse: 
  • The Betsy Ross House
  • The site of the Second Presbyterian Church and the location of the first Presbyterian General Assembly
  • Elfreth’s Alley: The oldest still inhabited residential neighborhood in America
  • Christ Church

I hope to do more of these tours on the future.  If you have a group that is interested please drop me an e-mail.

Here are some pics from the day:

Hanging out in George and Martha Washington’s pew at Christ Church
I found the John Witherspoon portrait
I also found this photo of Elias Boudinot, founder of the American Bible Society
Carpenter’s Hall
We ended the day with pizza and gelato (including Olive Oil-flavored gelato) at Pizzeria Stella in Society Hill

What is a trip to historical Philadelphia without a visit to the Liberty Bell
Elfreth’s Alley (photo by Brianna Keene