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A triple play today. It started with my writing a response to one of my students at the Marlboro MBA for Managing Sustainability program. We have been reading several essays probing what well-being means to economists. The last few selections were by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum in particular draws her framework from Aristotle who describes the Good as those things and action that create eudaimonia. The closest translation for this Greek word is flourishing or fully functioning. My interpretation, not necessarily hers, is that we have to look back to classical times to fully understand ethical or normative notions like good or well-being. Nussbaum believes that a political economy has to provide the capabilities for the good life, and develops a list of what those capabilities comprise.
Next, in my morning scan of the internet, I read David Brooks’s oped piece. As I noted earlier, Brooks has been exploring subjects of great interest to me recently. His theme today was the importance of including the humanities in college education. Although I disagree with his opening premise, his overall story is right on. Brooks begins by claiming that the present economic crunch and loss of jobs is driving students away from studying the humanities towards “accounting,” the metaphor he used for all professional education. Maybe so, but a little thinking suggests that in a smaller job market in the business world, maybe a general education would find places outside of that shrunken labor marketplace. Humanities have been disappearing from college curricula at a rapid pace over the last generation.
In any case, Brooks “stand[s] up for the history, English and art classes, even in the face of today’s economic realities.”

Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.

Later in the piece, he says:

Studying the humanities will give you a wealth of analogies. People think by comparison — Iraq is either like Vietnam or Bosnia; your boss is like Narcissus or Solon. People who have a wealth of analogies in their minds can think more precisely than those with few analogies. If you go through college without reading Thucydides, Herodotus and Gibbon, you’ll have been cheated out of a great repertoire of comparisons.

Altogether a column worth reading. And then I clicked on a nearby link in the Times and the words of Stanley Fish popped up. Fish was extolling the virtues of the classical high school education he had gotten in Providence some 55 years ago.

When I attended, offerings and requirements included four years of Latin, three years of French, two years of German, physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, English, history, civics, in addition to extra-curricular activities, and clubs — French Club, Latin Club, German Club, Science Club, among many others.

I, too, went to a similar public high school in Cincinnati a few years earlier. We were offered six, not four, years of Latin. The school dropped its Greek courses just a few years earlier. At my 50th reunion, one of my former classmates regaled us by quoting Caesar, instantly invoking images of my own experience.
Fish spends most of the column reviewing three books that are critical of the present secondary education system. All three urge returning to a more classically based curriculum. He quotes from Diane Ravitch’s recent book:

Ravitch’s recommendations are simple, commonsensical and entirely consonant with the views of Boitins and Nussbaum. Begin with “a well conceived, coherent, sequential curriculum,” and then “adjust other parts of the education system to support the goals of learning.” This will produce a “foundation of knowledge and skills that grows stronger each year.” Forget about the latest fad and quick-fix, and buckle down to the time-honored, traditional “study and practice of the liberal arts and sciences: history, literature, geography, the sciences, civics mathematics, the arts and foreign languages.”

Sustainability as flourishing builds on the classical image of flourishing as the desideratum of human social life. Unless we understand what that image is, there is little likelihood we will ever divert the current economic machine from its misbegotten path. If the most formative years of our school education lack any related content, where are these critical values and beliefs going to come from. Those already in college and beyond have missed the exposure, and will not be able to teach their children what is most important in life. These lessons are not the sole responsibility of our schools, but they can and must play a key role.
On a completely unrelated note, the Hairy Woodpecker chick, nesting in a pecked-out hole in a nearly dead birch next to the house, has flown the coop. We have been entranced for a week or so by the tiny head that peeks out to see the world and receive food from the adult that flitters back and forth. My bird book notes that Hairy’s often come back again to same hole to raise their chicks. I hope so. I do miss the chick’s chirping and the rat-a-tat-tat of the parent seeking insects to bring back to the nest.
(Rembrandt, *Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer* )

3 Replies to “Today’s Synchronicity–the Classics”

  1. John,
    It is interesting (and perhaps, surreptitious) to note that the latest initiative of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania is “positive humanities”. This new program, sponsored by the several robust foundations, will be led by the director of the applied positive psychology program at Penn, James Pawelski. I am unsure of the details of the program at this point. But the idea is to inject new life into humanities education based on the findings of positive psychology. Dr. Pawelski is a leading scholar on Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, and certainly will be making this framework an important component of this initiative.

  2. The renowned and acclaimed rabbi, physician, and philosopher Maimonides was influenced by Aristotelian thought and also viewed eudamonia as a form of flourishing attained through the care of one’s body, mind, and spirit leading to a sense of genuine well-being. This fits well with a vision of sustainability involving caring and a sense of stewardship for God’s creation.

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