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Text of an interview with American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, published in The Australian (July 13, 2011)

MARTHA Nussbaum's belief that the good of humanity can, and should, be brought to light has transformed international politics. Her capabilities approach, developed with Nobel prizewinner Amartya Sen, classifies respect for imagination, emotions and play alongside reason, health and life, and gave rise to the UN human development index.

Now the American philosopher has turned her attention to education, warning that the cultivation of citizenship through a liberal education is vital to democracy. But is this tradition under threat from an ethos that puts profit before people?

In your recent book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, you present an ideal of the liberal democratic citizen. Could you describe it?

These citizens are independent and critical. They do not defer to peer pressure, tradition and authority but examine things for themselves. They know how to distinguish a good argument from a bad one. They also know how to imagine the point of view of other groups in their society who are affected by policies that are being debated and to imagine the lives of people abroad whom their consumer choices and political efforts affect.

This means they are not only empathetic; they are also knowledgeable about world history, world religions and the problems and achievements of different racial, gender and sexual groups. This knowledge needn't be extensive but enough that these citizens also know what they don't know, and how to inquire further.

You have criticised Barack Obama's vision of education aimed at career preparation, arguing that the liberal arts comprise the ideal form of higher education for democracy. Why?

All students certainly need a major subject that prepares them for a career. But what liberal arts education permits is that they also spend two years or so doing general courses that are a preparation for citizenship and life.

This idea has a long history. It was defended by John Stuart Mill, for example, who noted that it was present in Scotland but absent in England. But right now it is most commonly found in the US and in Britain. Scotland lost it recently because the Bologna process required it to move to a three-year degree rather than four years.

In the US, we find that liberal education promotes understanding across the different sectors of society, since all students have some studies in common. It refines the ability to think critically and examine the arguments of politicians, which keeps them accountable, and promotes a civil and reasonable style of debate.

It also promotes the cultivation of the imagination, a natural ability but one that we often use narrowly, within a small circle. To learn to think about the lives of people in other racial or religious groups requires education, and that sort of education is essential if social problems are to be handled well.

Even if business culture were our only goal, the liberal arts promote innovation and a healthy workplace where corruption is unmasked by critical voices. For these reasons, Singapore and China have reformed education to add a lot more humanities and arts. The global economy is highly mobile. Nations won't do well if their students think by rote and don't know how to imagine new alternatives.

Liberal arts universities tend to educate students from economically privileged backgrounds, while the economically disadvantaged often attend more vocational-style colleges. Does the class gap matter?

This is a common stereotype and it may well be true in some countries, but it surely isn't true in all. In the US, at least since World War II, when the GI Bill gave all veterans the opportunity to attend excellent colleges and universities, the idea of liberal education has been imagined as one that crosses lines of class and race, and cultivates inclusiveness and the ability to deal well with the presence, and the history, of different social groups.

Liberal arts education is ubiquitous, not only at elite private universities and well-known liberal arts colleges but also in all state universities and in many colleges that focus on business and engineering. And the private universities and colleges are trying very hard to give scholarship aid to any student who qualifies . . . we are still far from having solved problems of inclusion and financial aid, but that is the goal of every good liberal arts school.

You have argued against conservative thinkers, such as Allan Bloom, who propose curriculums based on Western civilisation and the canon. Yet in many of your books there is a sense of classical citizenship drawn primarily from Western culture. Is that a contradiction?

Actually, my heroes come from all over. In my book Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian philosopher and educator is one of the most central models.

My first career was as an expert in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and in criticising Bloom, who had made his case by appeal to the classics, I found it useful to show that he had completely misunderstood what Socrates and the later Stoic educators thought and did. So that was the reason for that focus. And I do find that the dialogues of Plato remain one of the best ways of teaching students to think critically because the figure of Socrates is powerfully inspiring and moving, and the works draw you in to the give-and-take of argument in an artful way. But I do not think that education should be based on a Western canon. If the aim is to promote understanding of a complicated world, works should be chosen to convey an adequate understanding, and that means drawing from many times and places.

I also think that it's mistaken to suppose that the concept of citizenship I endorse is Western. It is just as Indian as it is Western, and the Indians who forged it surely did not get it from the West, since the West, in their experience, was a culture of imperialism and brutality.

In your writing, we encounter a person called the world citizen. How would I spot one in a bar?

Well, I think you'd have to strike up a conversation about some global topic: free-trade coffee, global warming or terrorism. Then you'd see whether this person was just parroting slogans from the media or was really thinking for him or herself.

You'd see whether there was at least a reasonable degree of knowledge behind the claims being made. I'd also look for a high level of listening and curiosity, some self-doubt and humility rather than complacency, and an ability to imagine what other people are thinking and feeling.

The world needs commerce, science and technology more than the humanities. Right or wrong?

Wrong! Even for commerce and technology to succeed, they need the humanistic imagination and the ability to think critically and rigorously.

Science at its best is closely allied to the humanities because it is creative, highly rigorous and critical. So what the world needs is an alliance between the humanities and creative basic science to foster the skills that produce good citizenship and healthy business cultures.

Martha Nussbaum, author of Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities,

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  4. Diversity & Justice
  5. Community & Civic Engagement
  6. Global Awareness

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