Postmodern Conservative

Liberal Education, Techno-Vocationalism, and Leisure

I want to add a few points to Peter’s recent posts (see here and here) arguing that a narrow vocationalism, or, as he calls it, “techno-vocationalism” — more than political correctness gone wild (PCGW, anything ending in “studies,” trigger warnings, etc.)— is the primary threat to liberal education in our time. Although these are two distinct threats, in this current atmosphere PCGW feeds the turn to narrow vocationalism. Here’s what I mean. If you are spending in the neighborhood of $200,000 for four years of college, better to come away with a solid degree in accounting than in gender studies. The thought seems to be that by focusing on measurable outcomes and skills, we can separate the useless and pernicious stuff from the material that makes somebody actually employable. The hope is that unavoidable budget realities will simply force colleges to make choices about what sort of content to support. Eventually the majors that lead to actual employment will win out. This will likely lead to the death of a real liberal education as well, as most administrators won’t be willing to make a “value judgment” about whether or not to protect two “equally useless” programs: gender studies and classical languages. Indeed, it may well be that women’s studies is more defensible on grounds of utility. After all, a gender studies major could get credit for an internship somewhere — precisely the sort of “high impact” learning that’s all the rage these days.

So I agree with Peter that PCGW is intensifying but I doubt that it is becoming more irrelevant. The alternative is sketched out in a new book by Michael Roth called Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. It was recently reviewed in the Washington Post by Christopher Nelson, the president of St. John’s College. Roth argues that two traditions have historically comprised the core of liberal education in America. Here’s Nelson’s take on the book’s central thread:

The first is a philosophical tradition emphasizing preparation for inquiry; its aim is freeing the mind to investigate the truth about things physical, intellectual and spiritual. The second is a rhetorical tradition emphasizing initiation into a common culture through the study of canonical works; its aim is learning to participate in the culture, to appreciate its monuments and to create new monuments inspired by the old. Roth characterizes the philosophical thread as “skeptical” and the rhetorical thread as “reverential.” The central argument is that liberal education is some combination of these two traditions that aims at serving the needs of the “whole person.” Both traditions are necessary for raising free and autonomous individuals who must also participate with others in society. It is next to impossible to attain independence alone, precious little can be learned without a common culture and the society of others, and it is the special task of education to offer the tools required to understand both oneself and the world in which one lives.

I would add that these two threads, the skeptical and reverential, are necessarily interconnected. Both depend on a habit of mind alien to the spirit that dominates education today. Josef Pieper, writing in the years immediately following the Second World War, noticed the trend back then. Pieper wrote what he knew would be seen as an untimely defense of leisure. The Greek word for leisure is the basis of our word for school. Aristotle wrote in book ten of the Nicomachean Ethics that we are not at leisure in order to be at leisure. Pieper, following Aristotle and Saint Thomas, called leisure a condition of the soul. It seems to me that educational institutions have completely lost a sense of leisure properly understood. They equate it with idleness, which is actually the inability to be at leisure. Colleges today embrace the frenetic world of functions, the world of total work. We have fallen into the trap of “solving” idleness with mere “activity.” Credit bearing internships, clubs, student government, etc. — it is all “co-curricular”, and it’s all necessary of you want a decent job. But this solution to idleness — all of this activity, though much of it intellectual — is problematic for three primary reasons. All of them predispose us to view intellectual life in certain ways. First, it leaves that impression that intellectual engagement is always active, directed outward, that the world is a problem to be solved. Second, this frenzy of intellectual work suggests that intellectual activity is painful, or at least unpleasant. We thus learn to equate an intellectual activity’s goodness with its difficulty. And thirdly, we then tend to associate intellectual activity with serving a defined role or function in the social order.

As Pieper argues, leisure, properly understood, is something quite distant from both idleness and this frenzy of activity. Indeed, as suggested by its etymology, leisure is to be found in and through education, and it has three primary aspects. First, it is a kind of stillness wherein you are truly open to the world. You are disposed toward understanding in the deepest sense which the Greeks thought was like a kind of intellectual vision — the beholding of an idea and seizing on its inner truthfulness. Thus leisure involves reason both in its ordinary, active sense of discursive thought, but also in this other, more passive contemplative sense. Second, leisure involves a spirit of joy, a spirit of celebration — we find ourselves in a world that seems to invite our contemplation and this is, or ought to be, deeply pleasant. Finally, being at leisure means engaging our highest faculties. We touch that part of our nature which partakes of the divine. Thus we are emphatically not at leisure so we can refresh ourselves to return to work. That would mean to put what is high in the service of the low. We are at leisure to, as Pieper says, “remain capable of taking in the world as whole, and thereby to realize [ourselves] as being[s] who are oriented toward the whole of existence.” Being at leisure is what enables us to contemplate the beauty of a rose, to experience the transcendent solemnity of a piece of music, to apprehend the wisdom embedded in a novel, or to catch the gaze of your infant son in such a way as to glimpse the meaning of fatherhood.

Is liberal education defensible in such terms, in today’s climate? I don’t know. I do know that if liberal education’s defenders employ arguments based in utility, we will have undermined its true basis and lost the core of its distinctive appeal.

Flagg Taylor is an associate professor of political science at Skidmore College and the editor, most recently, of The Long Night of the Watchman: Essays by Václav Benda, 19771989.


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