Leisure, Busyness, and the Aims of Liberal Education

Joseph M. Knippenberg

November 1, 2007

Like many other colleges and universities, my institution is currently thinking about how best to promote student civic engagement. As a political theorist who has given a good deal of thought to civic education, I should approve of this rediscovery of one of the original missions of liberal education, on my own campus and elsewhere. But as a contrarian who has given a good deal of thought to the relationship between theory and practice, I have some hesitations about this enterprise.

I formulated some of those hesitations in a talk I recently gave to colleagues and thought that I would offer the gist of my remarks to a wider audience. Then I called my remarks “Tocquevillian Reflections on Teaching Civic Engagement.” Now, I’m happier with the title “Leisure, Busyness, and the Aims of Liberal Education.”

I invoked the shade of Tocqueville because he is, after all, the great apostle of American civic engagement. Worried about the various threats to liberty posed by the equality of conditions that history was bringing his way, Tocqueville found in America a number of defenses against the tyrannical majorities and paternalistic governments he feared would succeed the old aristocratic regimes as they gave way to democracy.

Two of the most oft-noted of these defenses are township government and associations. Tocqueville calls the former “schools of liberty,” where people learn how to cooperate with one another in dealing with local problems well within the scope of their understanding and imagination. Composed of the collective efforts of relatively weak individuals who alone could accomplish nothing, the latter provide a democratic substitute for the powerful aristocratic lords.

It is tempting to argue, following Tocqueville, that colleges and universities ought to do everything they can to shore up the institutions and the habits and practices associated with them. In so doing, we educators would seem to be carrying out his prescriptions for how to preserve the liberty and genuine individuality that are threatened by equality of conditions. All we’d have to do, it would seem, is engage our students in the lives of our surrounding communities, so that they could learn from local practitioners the habits of democratic self-government and associational responsibility and self-help.

For this sort of civic education, colleges and universities would seem to be little more than facilitators, middlemen, or midwives, introducing our students to the communities and associations from which they would learn the healthy practice of democracy in America.

But Tocqueville also has a theory of democracy in America, so to speak, and that’s where things begin to get interesting.

He notes quite frequently that there is little genuine diversity of thought in America, in large part because we, as individuals, lack the resources to think for ourselves. Of course, that’s only the most general way of putting it. In particular, because we all have to work for a living, we lack the time and the inclination to engage in the kind of deep theoretical inquiry that conduces to the production of new, different, and interesting ideas. Instead, Tocqueville says, we buy our opinions off the shelf, from the majority:

In the United States, the majority takes charge of furnishing individuals with a host of ready-made opinions, and thus it relieves them of the obligation to form their own. There are a great number of theories on matters of philosophy, morality, or politics that everyone thus adopts without examination, on the faith of the public…

In addition, we lack the secure self-confidence to disagree with the majority of our fellows, on whose approbation we depend. Here is how Tocqueville chillingly characterizes this aspect of what he calls “tyranny of the majority”:

[I]n our day civilization has perfected even despotism itself, which seemed… to have nothing more to learn.

Princes had so to speak made violence material; democratic republics in our day have rendered it just as intellectual as the human will it wants to constrain. Under the absolute government of one alone, despotism struck the body crudely, so as to reach the soul; and the soul, escaping from those blows, rose gloriously above it; but in democratic republics, tyranny does not proceed in this way; it leaves the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says to it: You shall think as I do or you shall die; he says, You are free not to think as I do; your life, your goods, everything remains to you; but from this day on, you are a stranger among us. You shall keep your privileges in the city, but they will become useless to you; for if you crave the vote of your fellow citizens, they will not grant it to you, and if you demand only their esteem, they will still pretend to refuse it to you. You shall remain among men, but you shall lose your rights of humanity. When you approach those like you, they shall flee you as being impure… Go in peace, I leave you your life, but I leave it to you worse than death.

Thus, Tocqueville says, “there is no freedom of mind in America.” On the contrary, what we have come to call “political correctness” is, as it were, the occupational hazard of democratic citizenship.

To summarize: in America Tocqueville found immense pressures, some benign and some insidious, toward an intellectual conformity that would diminish the human spirit and lead us to squander the liberty that is our birthright. But he also identified the counterweights, and that’s where colleges and universities come in.

First, to the degree that we are all prey to the demand for practicality, to the degree that we all always busy acquiring credentials and/or deploying them in order to make a living, we need the kind of leisure that a genuinely higher education can afford us. Students need to be told that the constant credential-oriented agitation that has marked their lives as what New York Times columnist David Brooks once called “organization kids” should be suspended in favor of inquiry, thought, and discussion. The busyness will resume soon enough, but they have an opportunity to build up a kind of intellectual capital to sustain their individuality and freedom as they proceed through life. College students today can have a remarkable opportunity to be provoked into thinking for themselves, into examining and debating a variety of ways of regarding the world.

But we don’t accomplish this primarily by sending them out into the community, busying them with the pressing affairs of others. To the degree that collegiate civic engagement is a substitute for leisurely thought and discussion, to the degree that it takes the place of the leisurely contemplation of great ideas, it hinders, rather than helps, the causes of freedom, individuality, and self-government.

But that isn’t Tocqueville’s only piece of advice to educators. Here’s another:

In our day one must detain the human mind in theory; it runs of itself to practice, and instead of constantly leading it back toward the detailed examination of secondary effects, it is good to distract it from them sometimes in order to raise it to the contemplation of first causes.

Our students’ natural tendency is to seek the pragmatic and the useful, to prepare themselves for the life of work that awaits them. Regarded in this aspect, higher education is a kind of advanced trade school, dedicated to the preparation of young professionals.

While it would be folly simply to ignore this tendency, we educators should engage in a bit of pushback, insisting on the importance of theory for its own sake, as an end in itself. Stated another way, colleges and universities can play an important role in a democratic society by being “countercultural.” I don’t mean to urge a return to the manner of the Sixties, which all too often simply exaggerated a certain kind of immediate pragmatism (“if it feels good, do it” is a plausible predecessor to the thought that “the one who dies with the most toys, wins”). Rather, I think that colleges and universities can pull a little away from the immediately practical, insisting upon the importance of the permanent things that provide an anchor for human freedom and individuality against the pressure of the everyday.

Tocqueville even has some suggestions about the content of a countercultural curriculum. People in democratic ages, he says, should read Greek and Latin authors, for they call to our attention the importance of individuals, their potency, and their consequent responsibility. By contrast, for example, modern historians tend to present individuals as victims of mass movements and impersonal social forces. We need reasons for taking responsibility for ourselves, our communities, and our nations, not excuses for why we can’t.

We seem to have arrived at a kind of paradox: Tocqueville is apparently the apostle of both civic engagement and collegiate disengagement, of immersion in community as a way of learning the dispositions and habits of responsible democratic self-government and of withdrawal from the pressures of busyness for the sake of cultivating a confident and responsible individuality.

Properly understood (to use a good Tocquevillian expression), there is a tension and not a paradox. Higher education should be understood as a preparation for a life of responsible individual citizenship. What it can offer us, perhaps uniquely of all American institutions, is exposure to the resources for cultivating genuine intellectual independence and individuality. To do so, it must, as I have said, fight against our tendency to disdain these resources as impractical and irrelevant to our need to get on with our daily lives.

Busyness of all sorts is inimical to the leisurely cultivation of individuality. That includes the busyness of working at a part-time job, the busyness of recreational pastimes (from ultimate Frisbee to ultimate partying to ultimate social networking to ultimate video-gaming), and the busyness of civic engagement as it is typically promoted on our college campuses, where community service offices provide a menu of opportunities that could engage or distract students every day of the week.

I’ll concede the point that there are better and worse forms of busyness, that the busyness of working in a homeless shelter or tutoring children at an elementary school is unquestionably superior to the busyness of beating level 47 of some video game. But unless we in higher education insist—for the brief time we have our students—upon the claims of genuine leisure over against all forms of busyness, we abdicate our unique position and in essence give away the game. We might as well bill ourselves as trade schools, dedicated to preparing cogs for our industrial (or post-industrial) and mass democratic machines. For we can’t any longer call ourselves liberal arts educators, called intransigently to insist upon the importance of leisurely contemplation for the cultivation of a genuinely free individuality.

By all means, let’s have some civic engagement, as a supplement to and occasion for thought. But let’s also insist, against the pressures of the marketplace, upon the importance of reading, thinking, and conversation, all increasingly threatened in a world that demands that we always be doing something.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.