Skip Content

Not for Profit: Why Democracy needs the Humanities

Lecture by Professor Martha Nussbaum FBA, delivered on 16 December 2010 (venue: The Royal Society).

"Responsible citizenship requires ... the ability to assess historical evidence, to use and think critically about economic principles, to compare differing views of social justice, to speak a foreign language, to appreciate the complexities of the major world religions. A catalogue of facts without the ability to assess them, or to understand how a narrative is assembled from evidence, is almost as bad as ignorance.”

This extract from Martha Nussbaum’s powerful and provocative new book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, illustrates her indictment of the way in which the humanities and liberal arts are being increasingly undermined and undervalued in the face of “the unquenchable thirst for economic growth that drives education policy around the world.”

She speculates on how John Stuart Mill “could have imagined that disciplines such as history, literature, classical studies and philosophy would be valued only to the extent that they can sell themselves as tools of a growing economy”, and criticises the UK’s proposed Research Excellence Framework (REF) as “the latest assault on humanistic values [and] an insidious threat to the rich idea of learning” that Mill advocated.

In a rare UK appearance, supported by the S T Lee Fellowship Fund, Professor Nussbaum developed these arguments and took questions from the audience.

Martha Nussbaum FBA is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. She is an Associate in the Classics Department and the Political Science Department, a Member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and a Board Member of the Human Rights Program. She is the founder and Coordinator of the Center for Comparative Constitutionalism.

The lecture was chaired and introduced by Dame Gillian Beer FBA. Dame Gillian Beer is a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature. She is Professor Emeritus at the University of Cambridge. Among her books are Virginia Woolf: the Common Ground (1996), Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter (1996) and Darwin’s Plots (1983, third edition 2009).