The Education that Americans Need


The Education that Americans Need

May 1, 2023 16 min read

Commentary By

Richard Reinsch @Reinsch84

Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies

Rachel Alexander Cambre

Visiting Fellow, B. Kenneth Simon Center

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Why do Americans need an education in leisure? Rachel Alexander Cambre discusses the foundation of education and how it leads to a true understanding of freedom and flourishing.

Richard Reinsch: Hello, I’m Richard Reinsch. Welcome to Defining Conservatism. Today we’re talking with Rachel Alexander Cambre about her new paper for The Heritage Foundation: America Needs an Education in Leisure. Rachel is a Visiting Fellow in the Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and holds a PhD in political theory from Baylor University. Rachel, welcome.

Rachel Alexander Cambre: Thank you, Richard, for having me. It’s great to be here.

Reinsch: So I want to just think about the title of this essay you’ve written. America Needs an Education in Leisure. What’s an education in leisure?

Cambre: Yeah, that’s a great question because when I talk to people about this, when I mention this need it’s not very intuitive to Americans that we would need to be educated on how to be at leisure or how to exercise our leisure. We tend to think of leisure as the way we spend the time we’re not working, the way we relax or unwind, sort of check out from the world. But what I argue in this report is when we return to a more classical understanding for leisure, leisure really encompasses something much higher than what we engage in our everyday tasks and obligations, in our everyday workday. Leisure really encompasses the contemplation of the reality around us, reflection on our existence and the purpose of our existence, our place in the cosmos. It entails a recognition of the goodness of that existence and our gratitude for it, our love for that goodness, and our ability to devote ourselves to it. And so it really calls forth these higher human capacities that have to be cultivated and honed before we can exercise them.

Reinsch: So that’s leisure, and thank you for that, that’s definitely worth exploring. But also, let’s think about education in this essay as well. And when we think of education in America, including many people center right, broadly speaking, conservatives, education is supposed to be tied to tangible outcomes ensuring that you are a proficient and skilled reader, someone who can do math and computations, someone who has responsibility, things like that. Someone who could be a success in American life, prepared for the workforce, but that’s not how you are talking about education. Help us understand that and why what you are saying is actually a superior understanding of education.

Cambre: Yeah, sure. So one way I’m thinking about education is the purpose of education is not just to train workers, but to form human beings, to enable human beings to flourish. And that’s a larger task than simply preparing children, human beings for the workforce or to become self-sufficient. Those are both good ends, but they’re lower ends, so to speak, more basic ends or more tied to our more basic needs than is the end, the purpose of human flourishing. So in order for education to fulfill that purpose, it has to teach human beings how to exercise their leisure, how to govern themselves, not only in order to provide basic needs for themselves to feed themselves, to shelter themselves, to protect and preserve themselves, but also how to live well, live virtuously, live excellently once those basic needs are satisfied.

Reinsch: And so in thinking of this together, I mean you talk about the ways that education is failing Americans, you talk about the way education is failing boys in particular, and we’ve got this problem in America in general of people leaving conventional education and not actually being that well-educated, that well-prepared. Is that an outcome here of the way, are we just thinking about education wrongly for the most part in America? And this would offer a correction, and I think a part of that is, was this actually the way we thought about education before, which is not to diminish tangible outcomes, but to sort of have this holistic approach of thinking about the human person, of thinking about reality, of thinking about God, nature and nature in the sense of that there’s truth that we’ve sort of just brushed to the side?

Cambre: Yeah. So great question. I want to make two main points there. The first is that when we think about education as simply or strictly serving these tangible outcomes, preparing students for the workforce, how to make a living, make a name for themselves, become self-sufficient, all good things. When we think about it strictly in those terms, as soon as a school or an education is not necessary for those outcomes, as soon as a student, a young person, attains those basic skills and can go out in the workforce and find an apprenticeship, find higher training, train on the job, then they have no further need for education. Whereas when we think of education in this more holistic sense as cultivating the whole person, shaping someone to flourish as a human being, then there is further need for education even when those basic skills have already been taught. So that’s the answer to the first part of your question.

So your second part of your question was, did we at one time think of education, especially in America, as fulfilling this higher purpose of educating for leisure, for human flourishing, not simply for these tangible outcomes? And when we go back to the founder’s understanding of education, they disagreed about many aspects of it, had these very fruitful discussions and arguments over their vision for education. But one element that they all shared was they all understood that in order for America to remain a free society, Americans had to be educated how to be free. And that meant learning how to spend their free time fruitfully. And that doesn’t just mean productively, but to spend it in a way that is intrinsically good. So I can get into the details of some examples of founders.

Reinsch: Yeah, no, I just wanted to talk about that and think about that because I mean, it’s an understanding of education not many people have. It’s also an understanding of education. Tocqueville has a sort of famous chapter in democracy in America, why we should read the original classics or the classics in the original Greek and Latin, where he sets forth this idea of liberal education, the education you’re pointing to, which a middle class democracy like America needs, even though it is so profoundly committed to the day-to-day, and to creating and making goods, providing services, trading those things with one another. And that’s just an essential part of a commercial republic. And the question goes, well, why do you need this education that the classicists would’ve understood? But this was actually a part of education in America. It was certainly a part of higher education in America.

You think about the 19th century America being pockmarked with liberal arts schools, the faculty being few, but they could teach every subject. And there was sort of this assumption of the students would be involved in every class and in every subject, and would become a liberally educated, their mind would be free to contemplate things that they didn’t know before. And to do so without a certain prejudice. That understanding of education in America doesn’t exist. So I think paper’s very important in that regard, I suppose. And you get into this in your paper.

Another problem we encounter though is leisure itself, we define as the absence of work. And you actually say that in the paper. It’s the absence of work, it’s entertainment, it’s when we sort of forget ourselves in the sense of we forget our brains and we’re just sort of on vacation. And that’s kind of how we think about leisure. But you talk about that being sort of a deficient understanding. And there’s this sense in which it’s only been made worse because of the phones, the imagery, the compression of imagery, the screens and the dopamine hits those all provide to us, making us incapable of the leisure you’re talking about.

Cambre: Yeah. So I think we can grasp this problem well if we think about a problem that most Americans are pretty familiar with, and that is the labor shortage that we’re experiencing right now. We have right now roughly 3 million fewer Americans in the labor force than we did in February of 2020. So this has been referred to as the Great Resignation, this problem for our economy that we have so few workers, it’s difficult for businessmen to hire employees. So the question arose, once folks began to recognize what’s been referred to as the Great Resignation, the argument arose, is this good or bad for the individuals and for society? On one hand, it’s not good for the economy to have this huge labor shortage. On the other hand, commentators argued this shows that these workers now have greater freedom to pursue their time as they really want to, they aren’t compelled to stay in these jobs they don’t want to have.

But to really answer the question of whether this is good or bad, we have to ask, what are these millions of Americans doing instead of working? And there’s a scholar in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute, Nicholas Eberstadt, who’s done a lot of great work on this. And he shows through self-reported time use that most of these millions of Americans who have left the labor force, who are of prime age, healthy, able to work, spend their days, he puts it, "Sitting before screens as if that were a full-time job." So watching TV, playing video games, surfing the web, scrolling through social media feeds. And we intuit I think that there’s something unhealthy, something sad about this, something disordered about this. And I think that intuition points not just to the problem that there are people who aren’t contributing to society, who aren’t doing their part, but that spending one’s days in this way is somehow dehumanizing, that it’s an assault on our nature. It deprives us of what belongs to our nature.

Plants and animals have a nature and they fulfill that nature by instinct. Human beings have a nature, but we fulfill it by thinking, by thinking about how we ought to live. And when we instead take that free time after work or instead of work and surrender that capacity to think and sit passively before screens to entertain us, we’ve lost some of our humanity in that.

Reinsch: Talk about also in this connection with leisure, you talk about restlessness in your paper, and I think you argue to be able to engage in leisure, we have to prepare ourselves, but we’re incapable of preparing ourselves in many respects. So maybe talk more about that.

Cambre: Yeah, so there’s a reason that the distractions and overstimulation that the phones, the increased availability of entertainment offers. There’s a reason that we seek out that distraction and that overstimulation. Once we turn off all of the noise and images, what we’re left with is ourselves. We’re left with time and space and silence to reflect on our lives, our purpose, our place in the cosmos. And that can be a scary thing if you’re not sure there really is a rhyme or reason to our existence. If you doubt whether there is any order in nature, then reflection is going to be a very despairing exercise.

And so this underlines another important component of leisure, which is that leisure, as Josef Pieper puts it, Josef Pieper was a German philosopher who wrote a lot about leisure and its importance. "Leisure is only available to a man who is at one with himself and at one with the world." That means that in order for us to take the time to be willing to contemplate reality, and its goodness, that presupposes a sort of trust or confidence that reality is good, that is good that we exist, good that we’re here.

Reinsch: And that there’s order, there’s logic, there’s purpose to our existence. But yet so much of our education system, and just maybe bringing this back is tied to a view of not so much wonder at the world, I think, but there’s limited uses. There’s things we need to memorize, there’s things we need to say, we want to hit this milestone speaking at the next milestone. And that of course creates this sort of fever dynamic where we can’t wait for it to be done. We can’t wait for that work to be over, so what? So we can just sit in dissipation.

So there’s this link that you talk about on the paper, education properly done prepares us for leisure, and then that leisure leads us back to education. What does this mean though? I mean, if we fail to engage in leisure, you sort of hinted at this already, what happens to us? And I think a deeper question here too is, or later question, what happens to us as a society if our education system is defined either by utilitarianism or now we don’t even really have that, we have an education system being defined by sort of various Marxist ideological goals?

Cambre: So yeah, a lot of great questions there. So what happens? So what if we are incapable of leisure and are not prepared, one and the same thing are not prepared to exercise our capacity for leisure, then we do lose those higher capacities for reflection, contemplation. Festivity is another manifestation of leisure that Pieper spends a lot of time on. Those higher capacities atrophy or they’re never developed. And so when we are presented with alternatives to be entertained or to work more, or to escape, somehow escape from reality through overstimulation or substance abuse, those are going to appear more enticing because we have no better alternative that we’ve experienced or that’s been presented to us.

Reinsch: And I suppose as well, this is the reason why if you present these opportunities to people, they’re actually experienced as sort of painful, or odd, or weird because those muscles, soulful muscles have not been exercised in this regard. You mentioned festivity, I’m thinking of the festivities a lot of us know and engage in, but there’s also the festivity of religious ritual. There’s the festivities of, I don’t know, a fall harvest or something like that would be another one. Athletic festivities maybe, things that Americans know and experience as sort of like a goodness, an abundance, a celebration. And so we have experience with this.
It seems increasingly though, and you even cite to this Ross Douthat that says the novel died in America somewhat eccentrically, but maybe he’s right. The novel died with the advent of the smartphone precisely because the way in which that presents information to us. And we don’t want to engage in the hard work of reading a novel much like I think the festivities itself or doing things with our leisure like going to a museum or attending a concert of classical music, something like that seems like work. It seems odd to us versus watching a lot of YouTube videos.

Cambre: Right. Yeah. So yeah, Douthat actually says, "The novel ceased to matter to mass culture with the advent of the iPhone" which I think yeah, resonates a bit more. But one seeming paradox about leisure is that it is when we are at leisure, we’re at ease, there’s a sort of effortlessness to it, and yet it’s not easy to prepare or discipline oneself to be able to be at leisure. And I think we can grasp this better when we see it in practice. So I had the good fortune of being able to see the acclaim poet, Dana Gioia give two different poetry readings recently. And watching him, listening to him recite poetry, not just his own, but poems of Longfellow and Edgar Alan Poe just effortlessly, it’s amazing it, he’s totally at ease when he does this. And yet that his ability to recite poetry presumes years of sitting with those poems, reading them, savoring them, really dwelling on them and contemplating them. So it’s something that is not an easy task to do. But once those faculties have been honed, it is something that we experience at ease.

Reinsch: I think as well, I mean, so a poetry reading, and I’m thinking that there is something in your account of leisure and education, and I don’t mean this in a critical way, I’m just making an observation. It is something of an elite culture that should be maintained. An elite culture isn’t a bad thing. It’s sort of an inevitable thing. And my question, thinking about an education in leisure, and it was always the case that in America, even when most of higher education was marked by religion and classical learning, it was something few did. But that’s okay because they actually can guide the culture. And according to the things that they articulate, observing is worthy of human emulation.

Now we have a very different elite giving us very different things to emulate and imitate and value. And they aren’t working out so well. They don’t seem to be leading to human flourishing. What happens to a culture that ceases to have any sort of notion of an education that’s trying to attain imitation or reflection on the best of human experience and also considering the worst of human experience like a Shakespeare tragedy? There’s something about that culture that’s just unmoored from itself and unable to think properly about what it should do.

Cambre: Yeah. So I think two things happen. One is that you are more likely to see an elite that is pursuing utilitarian ends only, pursuing their own self-aggrandizement, their own fame or wealth rather than any higher ends. And doing so, not trying to hide that, doing that pretty obviously. And so that inevitably influences the rest of the culture to see fame as something that is really the highest thing in life. And so that of course informs how we all spend our time, spend our days. But I also wanted to note that because our American tradition is a democratic tradition, a more egalitarian tradition, we do see in the founding fathers examples or attempts, visions for an education in leisure that is more accessible to not just accessible to the few elite.
And I think a good example of this is Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography where he himself tells his story. He’s very much a self-made, kind of self-taught person and a hard worker, very successful businessman, had a very successful printing press, very successful inventor. He was certainly a busy man. And yet he carved out these spaces for leisure for himself and for his friends and for his community by forming reading groups. He had this reading group called the Junto that he formed with his fellow businessmen in which they would read different philosophic and literary treatises and discuss them and write papers for one another. And it was all done just for its own sake, for fun.
And he started the first public library to make books, make reading more accessible, more part of the leisure of everyday Americans. So I think he gives an account that can serve as a model for us that even though we all have to work, we’re not aristocrats who are going to, or few are aristocrats who can spend their entire days at leisure, we can still carve out these little moments, these spaces for that kind of higher activity.

Reinsch: You mentioned Benjamin Franklin and what we’ve also seen in America, you talk about this in your paper, the classical education movement, which is rising, has taken off dramatically, I would say in the last two decades. Going from being a incredibly, incredibly small part of education to now in most major cities in America, you can find half a dozen to a dozen of these schools. And some of them are religious, some of them are not. They’re all trying to model the education you’re talking about here. What are your thoughts on that?

Cambre: Yeah, I think the classical education movement is the best example of an education for leisure, or one of the best examples that we have today. So these classical schools explicitly write in their mission statement that the purpose of schooling is not just to educate good workers, but to educate for human flourishing. And so they do this by emphasizing Socratic seminar discussion, discussion about books, emphasizing the written and spoken word, moreover, other forms of technology by making space for immersion in nature through gardening or attending to farm animals, explorations in the wilderness. And so I think this is a really good example of at the K through 12 level, teaching students how to be at leisure.

Reinsch: And when you think about public schooling as well, what are ways that these public schools with so many problems, how could they incorporate this understanding of education and what they’re doing?

Cambre: Well, one small way, but important way, we saw a few weeks ago, Georgia and Arkansas, the departments of education in Georgia and Arkansas proposed revised English language arts standards to include the poetry recitation requirements. So to bring back poetry recitation, which was pretty common in schooling until about the 70s, to bring that back into public schools. And that’s a small way, and it doesn’t have to just be isolated, doesn’t just have to stay in English classrooms, English language arts classrooms. You can bring poetry and poetry recitation and performance into history lessons, throughout the school way as a way to integrate the student learning experience and teach them a way of learning that’s not strictly utilitarian because it’s not. There’s no job that’s going to require you to recite a poem. You learn a poem because it’s beautiful, because it says something that’s good and true about the world and our purpose in it.

Reinsch: Rachel Alexander Cambre, thank you so much for writing this essay, America Needs an Education in Leisure, and thank you for joining us today.

Cambre: Thank you, Richard.