Anyone who challenges the narrow practicality that dominates education will be suspected of elitist or aristocratic pretensions. The risk should be run. For if a liberal education is to regain its vitality, it must recapture its nonutilitarian dimension. Thinking, reading, and art require a cultural space, a zone free from the angst of moneymaking and practicality. Without a certain repose or leisure, a liberal education shrivels.
Today, to mention leisure evokes images of retirement communities or television viewing. Leisure has lost meaning, succumbing to the general fetish of leisure in a consumer society. In America leisure usually means buying or doing or watching something. The 1911 commission that validated an educational shift from academic to useful subjects listed the “worthy use of leisure” as one goal. “This objective calls for the ability to utilize the common means of enjoyment, such as music, art, literature, drama and social intercourse, together with the fostering in each individual of one or more special avocational interests.” The terms are revealing: leisure, the very antithesis of utility, must be “useful.”
Sebastian de Grazia, in his Of Time, Work and Leisure, sought to disentangle leisure from “free time,” an empty category. “Free time refers to a special way of calculating a special kind of time. Leisure refers to a state of being.” Originally leisure signaled something like quiet reflection. As the point of work and life, leisure or contemplation sustained Western culture.
…A liberal education requires a cultural breathing space, a small refuge. Reading, writing and thinking are delicate activities, easily numbed by the dint of money, shopping and jobs. This is not a judgment on individuals, who live as they must, but a judgment on a society that constricts the education it provides.
Jacoby is, of course, talking about the sorry state of higher education, but he could just as easily be summing up my complaint about Nicholas Carr’s big idea. The supposed neurological differences between reading a dead-tree book or a Nook book are petty when compared to the larger forces that prevent most people from having the time or inclination to read anything at all.
Speaking of Carr, a frequent enough target of my spitballs, I will say that this review of his latest book seems pretty unfair. I don’t think he’s paranoid or a scaredy-cat; he’s just barking up the wrong tree.