“Obamapoetics”: an example on why democracy needs the humanities.

Just before Christmas break, I was among the mixed academic and lay citizens audience lucky enough to have booked a seat enough in advance to be able to listen to one of the rare appearances of  Martha Nussbaum in the UK. Invited by the British Academy in London, Professor Nussbaum made her case for the necessity of humanities in education.  In a moment of drastic funding cuts in the humanities, Nussbaum argued that the inclusion of liberal arts and humanities in all stages of education is the only way to provide pupils and students with the capacity to become future democratic citizens of their countries and of the world. Nussbaum was also critical of the UK’s proposed Research Excellence Framework, i.e the recently introduced system to measure quality research in this country based principally on their economic impact.

How does Obama and his “poetics” enter into this discussion? To my mind, it does so in at least two ways, almost at the opposing poles. On the one hand, as Nussbaum was not only critical of the UK framework to assess research excellence, but also very critical towards the US system and her president. In particular she was referring to a speech delivered by Barack Obama in March 2009, where he praised China and Singapore for assigning a privileged status to the education of the subjects “which count”. The allusion to technical and scientific subjects being those which count, unlike the humanities, was quite obvious.

On the other hand, I was recently recommended -which I do to you all too-  this wonderful website called “Poetry off the shelf” , where you can download for free (and legally!) the podcasts of the homonymous poetry radio show. On a Sunday afternoon I came across this  podcast called “Obamapoetics”. I won’t spoil you the surprise -and pleasure- of listening to it yourself, but only tell you that it will give you insights you may have only suspected so far on the extent to which poetry (and literature) are embedded in Obama’s discourses and rhetoric.

The words we choose to use are important, as one of my favorite Italian movies ever by Nanni Moretti, titled “Bianca” -you can have a look at this memorable clip, though I am afraid it is in Italian   – and are able to influence actions. If they are the words of the president of the United States, even more. And, they come from poetry! To me, it represents a perfect case for why democracy needs the humanities today. And, isn’t that something marvelous?

Those interested in knowing more about Martha Nussbaum making the case for the humanities could read her last book “Not for profit” or listen to the recording of her talk at the British Academy in London.


I started writing this post thinking I would write about the role and importance of medical humanities today, but it quite took my hand in a different direction as you may have noticed. My apologies for that. More on the humanities and medicine soon!


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