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Not for Profit

July 24, 2012

Yesterday I was sitting in a university health center watching the television in the waiting room. It runs through a slide show of health information thought to be relevant to the student demographic, and one ‘de-stressing tip’ that I found rather alarming appeared:

“don’t read or watch the news”

In other words, to avoid stress we should focus on our own lives and insulate ourselves from the outside world. Needless to say, I find this suggestion very disconcerting. Focusing on personal achievement and well-being to the point of  ignoring local and global contexts strikes me as more narcissistic than healthy. A broad worldview should help us stressed folks to be able to differentiate between mountains and molehills, and set some of our own problems aside if they fall into the latter category. It should help us be critical about our decisions, and grant us the perspective to choose to be proactive.

 
An article fell into my path today that is related to this, even if it’s discussing slightly different themes. Martha Nussbaum in the excerpt below (from her new book Not for Profit) talks about the importance of well-rounded education with a focus on education for human development. As a international development scholar, she would never advocate self-insulation, and she can argue much more eloquently than myself.

 

Radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.

What are these radical changes? The humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers as useless frills,…they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children. Indeed, what we might call the humanistic aspects of science and social science—the imaginative, creative aspect, and the aspect of rigorous critical thought—are also losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit-making.

…We are pursuing the possessions that protect, please, and comfort us—what [Rabindranath] Tagore called our material “covering.” But we seem to be forgetting about the soul, about what it is for thought to open out of the soul and connect person to world in a rich, subtle, and complicated manner; about what it is to approach another person as a soul, rather than as a mere useful instrument or an obstacle to one’s own plans; about what it is to talk as someone who has a soul to someone else whom one sees as similarly deep and complex.

The word “soul” has religious connotations for many people, and I neither insist on these nor reject them. …What I do insist on, however, is what both Tagore and [Bronson] Alcott meant by this word: the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation. When we meet in society, if we have not learned to see both self and other in that way,…democracy is bound to fail, because democracy is built upon respect and concern, and these in turn are built upon the ability to see other people as human beings, not simply as objects.

Given that economic growth is so eagerly sought by all nations, especially at this time of crisis, too few questions have been posed about the direction of education, and, with it, of the world’s democratic societies. With the rush to profitability in the global market, values precious for the future of democracy, especially in an era of religious and economic anxiety, are in danger of getting lost.

http://harvardmagazine.com/2010/07/open-book-education-for-the-soul

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