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Liberal Education vs. Killing Time

February 9, 2012, 2:48 PM

So I’ve gotten too many enthusiastic and too many critical emails about my recent “Liberal Education” post for the wrong reasons.

It was critical, of course, with the general approach to education these days.  But it wasn’t about “general education” in the sense of the courses any particular college requires for graduation.  “Liberal education” could hardly be limited to general education.  And general education necessarily addresses issues that have nothing to do with liberal education.

Socrates, remember, criticizes the sophists for taking money for teaching.  It’s true he didn’t do that.  I do that, although not nearly what my wisdom is worth.

The price of not taking money was certainly felt by Socrates’ wife and kids, not to mention a country (city) that could have used a lot more of his effort and advice.  On the work/leisure issue, Socrates had a kind of joke:  He had no leisure for his family and country, because he was all about doing his duty to the god.  His mission from god, remember, was to spend all his time finding someone wiser than himself, thereby proving the god wrong in the observation that no Athenian is wiser than Socrates.  It’s doubtful that the god meant that Socrates should spend all his time trying to refute a divine claim for wisdom.

And, of course, what Socrates called work, conversational inquiry in the marketplace—almost anyone else would call leisure—or shooting the bull.  What Socrates called leisure was doing his financial, "quality time," and other duties to his friends, family, and country.  It was what we call work.  When we’re finished our work, then it’s time for leisure.  But what we call leisure time Socrates viewed as for real work—a kind of work that’s almost indistinguishable from play. 

For the maniac for philosophy Socrates, what is generally called leisure is for the real work of life, which is also the most enjoyable human activity, the one that makes life worth living.  Philosophy isn’t restful or even exactly contemplative.  It’s what the philosopher Hobbes called “the lust of the mind” that’s never fully satisfied, but is longer lasting and more satisfying than any lust of the body.

One meaning of Socrates calling himself a “gadfly” is acknowledging that he’s, from one view, a parasite, living off the blood and treasure of the Athenians (especially his rich friends) while offering them nothing certain that they can really use.

So “liberal education” isn’t education for being Socrates, because Socrates showed us clearly the disaster that would befall us if we all tried to be like him.  One criticism of liberal education as it’s often understood is that it creates a class of parasites who justify themselves with inconclusive claims about their singular wisdom and virtue.  That criticism has always had a lot of merit, especially if liberal education is understood to be the whole of education.

From our view, what we might call the Socratic error was institutionalized for centuries into what Mortimer Adler called “the aristocratic error…, the error of dividing men into free men and slaves or workers, into a leisure class and a working class, instead of dividing the time of each human life into working time and leisure time.”

Socrates himself actually does make that division, in a way, at one point.  He says that every human art—such as medicine—is selfless or directed toward the object of the art.  That’s even true, in a way, of the philosopher or physicist, insofar as the thinker loses his or her puny self in the object of his thought or concern.  But Socrates adds that everyone who practices a “selfless” art also practices the wage-earner’s art, which is the same for all those who engage in the various selfless arts.  Even doctors and philosophers, in real life, have bodies, and so are concerned about the size of their paychecks. Their concern here is no different from that of plumbers or police officers. 

Socrates didn’t properly defend either the necessity or the nobility of the wage-earner’s art by practicing it himself.  And so we don’t look to him for a true appreciation of the dignity of worthwhile work well done.  We don’t even look to him for a proper appreciation of the freedom and dignity of most human lives. 

That’s why, Adler explains, when we think about liberal education we have to think about the great advance of the last century or two.  We think that everyone should work for a living, and that everyone should have some leisure time.  So everyone, we can say more intentionally and truthfully, should have both the wage-earner’s art and liberal education.  High technology has, in our country, come fairly close to freeing all men and women from a life of nothing but drudgery.  Almost no one need spend all his or her time earning a living.

To use Adler’s words, “industrialists”—we might say entrepreneurs—“interested solely in productivity” regard “the man of leisure…as either a playboy or dilettante.”  That misunderstanding was useful when it was used to get those lazy aristocrats of old to work.  But it degrades us all in a time when every man, to some extent, can be a man of leisure.  Leisure time has to be more than free time. It's the time to display and enjoy much of what human freedom is truly for.  

That doesn’t mean, of course, being a playboy.  Hugh Hefner has always impressed me as someone who has desperately but unsuccessfully—and all too seriously—spent his life trying to convince us that he’s happy. 

But there’s a lot to be said for at least appearing to be a “dilettante”—or all about the joyful discovery of knowledge of all kinds.  Maybe there’s a lot more to be said for the professor not who’s interdisciplinary (a tired, empty word) but who has no discipline at all.  Well, that guy is no Socrates.  But who is these days?

Let me close, for now, with Adler’s “final word” on “the most infallible sign of a liberally educated man”:  “Aristotle said that the mark of a happy man is also the sure sign that he is liberally educated, namely, that you never find him trying to kill time.”

Well, one more point:  A Christian must ask—what about the virtue of charity?  Well, Socrates was pretty weak on that front too.  But even St. Augustine says charity shouldn't consume all our lives—open as we are to the strange and wonderful truth about who we are under God.


Liberal Education vs. Killi...

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