February 21, 2011
It turns out that we need novels for democracy. Poetry and the arts call on us to understand the inner world of others—essential for active democratic citizenship.
In Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton, 2010), Martha Nussbaum writes that understanding the great world requires more than knowledge and logic. It requires “the narrative imagination…the ability to think what it might be like be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.” (A bit akin to John Rawls’ notion that to come up with a just social structure, you must assume you don’t know your place in it; you don’t know your skin colour, sex, weight, abilities, industriousness, health, income, inheritance or anything else.)
Nussbaum notes that the “ability to feel concern and to respond with sympathy and imaginative perspective is a deep part of our evolutionary heritage.” But it needs cultivation, and our schools and universities—with their emphasis on training for technological and economic growth—are failing us.
More theatre, more dance, more poetry.