As part of Chancellor Biddy Martin’s declared “Year of the Humanities,”, speaker Martha Nussbaum presented a talk on Monday night entitled, “Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.”

Nussbaum’s message is best summarized in her own words: “If we do not insist on the crucial importance of the humanities and the arts, they will drop away because they don’t make money.”

Certainly, the humanities are of crucial importance, but Nussbaum’s analysis of their demise reverses cause and effect. The humanities are not viewed as unimportant because they don’t make money. They don’t make money because they are viewed as unimportant.

At one time, the arts did make money. Before the rise of modern nihilist “art” and government endowments to keep it afloat, individuals valued and supported art en masse. It was a profit-making business. What changed is not the value or need for art but the content of the “art” being produced. Beautiful, value-centered artwork was replaced by the unintelligible and irrational works of Picassos and Pollocks. Is it any wonder the art establishment ceased to have value in the minds of average Americans?

The same is true throughout the humanities. Philosophy, history, literature and other humanistic disciplines are crucially important as fields of study, but whether their content is valuable is determined by the substance and ideas in each field at any given moment.

Yet, rather than question the ideas being taught in the humanities, Nussbaum would have you believe that our culture is just too short-sighted and blinded by greed and profit-seeking to see the importance of the humanities.

As she stated in her commencement address to Connecticut College, “Democracies … are prone to some serious flaws in reasoning, to parochialism, haste, sloppiness, selfishness, lack of imagination. Education based mainly on profitability in the global market magnifies these deficiencies, producing a greedy obtuseness and a technically trained docility that threaten the very life of democracy itself, and that certainly impede the creation of a decent world culture.”

Is it possible that the humanities are unprofitable because of their view of profit? How on earth does educating for profitability lead to “flaws in reasoning, parochialism, haste, sloppiness” and “lack of imagination”? Being profitable in a global market requires reasoning, long-range thinking, planning and plenty of imagination. Just ask Sam Walton, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.

The irony of Nussbaum’s criticism is that it is precisely profitable areas of education — engineering, biological, medical science — that are the new bastions of reason, imagination and long-range thinking. Individuals in these fields are “technically trained,” for sure, but they are anything but docile or obtuse. They are dedicated to using their minds, thinking critically and dealing with others through argumentation and persuasion, the very virtues Nussbaum promotes.

While it’s true that the humanities often deal with abstract issues that have broader implications than engineering or business administration, it does not follow that practical, profit-driven pursuits are “lower” or short-sighted, whereas philosophy and anthropology are somehow “lofty” and noble. Unfortunately, Nussbaum seems to support this ivory tower attitude.

Nussbaum warns of a society of “useful profit-makers with obtuse imaginations” and quotes approvingly from author Rabindranath Tagore, who writes, “History has come to a stage when the moral man, the complete man, is more and more giving way, almost without knowing it, to make room for the … commercial man, the man of limited purpose.” Is it any wonder that the humanities are seen as impractical and unimportant?

Positing that the humanities somehow transcend lowly materialistic pursuits to reveal a world of justice and peace is a proscription for making the humanities obsolete. It places a wall between material pursuits and intellectual pursuits — between the body and the mind — and severs the humanities from reality.

Men, however, do not live in ivory towers; they live in the real world where the commercial man — the man seeking material wealth and profit — is the noble man. He, like the philosopher and the artist, uses his mind to pursue the values that sustain his life. He is not, as Tagore claims, “the man of limited purpose.” Nor is he merely “useful,” as Nussbaum asserts. Rather, he is the embodiment of abstract ideas, able to put those ideas into practice, uniting the abstract and the concrete, turning the potential into the actual.

The humanities need to discover that there is no dichotomy between the material and the intellectual, between profit and morality, or between the commercial and the intellectual. Even the humanities must earn their value and are subject to supply and demand like everything else. If they want to be valued, they must earn it.

Jim Allard ([email protected]) is a graduate student in the biological sciences.