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Leading philosopher to discuss need for a liberal arts education
[11.18.2010]

Martha Nussbaum is widely considered one of America’s top philosophers. Nussbaum, who has written more than 30 books, will be speaking at USF at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 30 at Traditions Hall about her latest book, “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.” Her lecture is part of the ongoing USF Phi Beta Kappa Faculty Lecture Series.

Nussbaum received a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Harvard University after graduating from New York University, where she studied theater and classics. Currently, she is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago.

Mass communications senior Amanda Stone caught up with Nussbaum for a quick conversation about her latest book and what prompted her to become a philosopher.

Q: Why did you decide to talk about the humanities in democracy now?
A: I wrote another book about liberal arts education in 1997, but that was a happier era, when there was wide agreement that the humanities were central, but disagreement only about whether they should be opened up to contain such new areas as study of non-Western cultures, study of race, study of women. I was defending these new areas as parts of responsible global citizenship. Today, however, nations are stampeding toward an instrumental model of education, in which its sole purpose is to produce national economic growth. Alarmed at this narrowing of focus, and at the neglect of what education contributes to the future of democracy, I decided to write this new defense of the humanities.

Q: Why do you think that the liberal arts departments of universities are critical to a thriving nation?
A: I think all citizens need to become capable of rigorous critical thinking, of leading what Socrates calls "the examined life." Without that, politics is just the exchange of sound bites. Courses in philosophy and other humanities produce this. We also need to cultivate our imaginative abilities, learning what our political choices mean for the whole life of people in a variety of different social positions, and this is promoted by literature and the arts.

Q: Is there a significant event that influenced your passion for philosophy?
A: There's no single event. I was drawn to philosophy very early, and although I briefly considered becoming a professional actress, I decided that I wanted to think about the plays instead. The relationship between literature and philosophy is still one of my primary areas of work.

Q: Who is your favorite philosopher?
A: I've always loved Aristotle's work, but almost nothing is known about him as a person, so it is not possible to think of him as a personal hero. My personal hero, among philosophers, is John Stuart Mill, in part because of his surprising views about the equality of women.

Q: What is your favorite thing about teaching?
A: I think my favorite thing about teaching is learning. So many of the ideas I've been preoccupied with are nourished and altered by the thoughts and criticisms of my students.

Q: When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A: An actress. And I still act often, in scenes from plays that we perform in some of our conferences, and I also take singing lessons and sing about an hour a day.

Q: What is something most people don’t know about you?
A: That I am a big White Sox fan.

-USF-



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Author: Amanda Stone
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