Liberal Education, Leisurism, and Technologism
Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. He serves as executive editor of the journal Perspectives on Political Science, and has been chair of the politics and literature section of the American Political Science Association. He also served on the editorial board of the new bilingual critical edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals. He has written or edited fifteen books and over 200 articles and chapters in a wide variety of venues. He was the 2007 winner of the Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters.\r\n\r\nLawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004 – 09. His most recent book, Modern and American Dignity, is available from ISI Books.\r\n\r\nFollow him on Twitter @peteralawler.
Here are some of the my reflections, based on more than three decades of teaching, on how to think about the place of liberal education in America. That place, for better and worse, is in our colleges and universities, where it has always been a fairly imperfect fit. If I can find the time, this will be one set of reflections among many.
Let me begin with the classical liberal claim, made by Aristotle, that knowledge and study are ends in themselves, and the greatest happiness is the contemplative life. We see evidence for the truth of this claim in the pure delight very young children experience in figuring out how things work and in learning the names for everything and everyone they can see for themselves. We see the purely nerdy joy of the theoretical physicist, who loses himself or herself in the pure act of discovering the order of nature. The truth is that the world in some sense is the home of the human mind. We were born to know.
But liberal education, of course, couldn’t be simply about losing yourself. It must be mainly about knowing who you are and what you’re supposed to do. Assuming that the cosmos is in some way the home of the human mind, the problem remains that the human person is not only or even essentially a mind. We are born to be both at home and homeless, and even to be at home with our homelessness.
We don’t really learn from Aristotle that the point of human life is contemplation. He just wants us to remember that contemplation is one point among many about being human. By identifying theoretical inquiry with contemplation, he makes it seem even more restful than it really is. He portrays contemplation as a kind of a respite from the activities of living a morally responsible and challenging life.
In the Bible, contemplation becomes more clearly part of every human life through the commandment to keep holy—or reserve for restful contemplation—the Sabbath. Nobody was created only to work, just as nobody was created only to contemplate. Without a place for contemplation—without understanding our “free time” as for civilized leisure, we wouldn’t be living as beings made in the image of the personal, loving, relational, creative logos who is God. We were made to both know and act out of love.
The objections we have to liberal education as contemplation are practical objections we have to the classical philosophy of the Greeks and Romans. One is its privileging of contemplation made ancient science unproductive or sterile. There was not enough thought given to directing minds toward technological goals, toward using them to improving the security, comfort, and freedom of ordinary people.
There is, of course, truth to this criticism, but it’s easy to see that we’ve gone from one extreme to the other.
We might be said to have moved from leisurism to technologism, to the view that equates knowledge with technological control and that every human problem has a technological solution. The Greeks and Romans might have underestimated or downplayed how much human beings could improve their situation through their own efforts, but our excess is to put too much faith in techno-perfectibility.
We put too much faith in what we can do for ourselves, and so we’re not grateful enough for what we’ve been given. Part of liberal education is learning that one’s very being is not in one’s own hands. So from one view, the opposite of liberal education is transhumanism. But from another, liberal education is the mean between leisurism and technologism.
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Build up, tear down—new technology stirs up a cycle of progress and cynicism we've seen all throughout history.
- "Every time that there's a new technology, particularly around media, there's a set of outcries around how that media is corrupting culture or how it's destroying certain aspects of our life," says entrepreneur and author Elad Gil.
- In some cases there are real concerns, but taking a historical view can quell unnecessary panic. Progress and cynicism work in a cyclical fashion, says Gil. New tech is unveiled, the media builds it up, then the media tears it down in a wave of backlash.
- Today we worry about kids and smartphones; 80 years ago we worried about kids and the radio; same cynicism, different day.
- Technology lifts the lid on human potential and quality of life, says Gil. We should be cautious, of course, but optimism is more valuable (and arguably more rational) than pessimism.
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