we’re doomed—and here’s why

Today we have a society in which all men are destined to be free—just as free as the Greek citizens and the Roman patricians, with more free time, more comfort, more power, more convenience, with as much political power. What is the educational consequence of this? What demand does it make upon education? It means giving every child of normal intelligence a liberal schooling through the bachelor of arts degree, without any vocational training whatsoever, and seeing that every adult after his liberal schooling continues with liberal learning for a lifetime. If this is not done, the free time, the power, and the lack of training in how to use them will result in the most morally degraded and corrupt society imaginable, one that will be destroyed more completely than any atomic bomb could possibly destroy it.

The above extract is from a text called “Foundations of a Philosophy of Education” by Mortimer J. Adler. The final sentence sounds like hyperbole, and yet hyperbole was not part of Adler’s usual toolkit; I have no doubt that he meant the statement literally. He’s looking out on the Western world and seeing a wasteland in the making.

He’s saying, in effect, that idle hands are the devil’s playthings, and when everyone has idle hands, the devil has a lot of playthings, and he’ll use them.

The idle hands he means refer not to unemployment in the usual sense, for people in the West are still, for the most part, employed, indeed busy and overworked. No: the idleness is the lack of constructive purpose in life, and most importantly the confusion of leisure with play.

We all need to have a living. Throughout history and up to this day in most of the world, most people have struggled to make a living. When you’re struggling to make a living—to secure basic food and shelter for yourself—you don’t have time for anything else. You lack leisure.

But the Western world is one in which that problem has, for most people, been largely solved. Political and intellectual freedom have provided the basis for an enormous increase in wealth for Westerners, and with it an increase in the amount of potentially free time in their lives—potential leisure. In the ancient world, the free man was exactly one who had leisure: he had the time to engage in the pursuits worthy of a free man, namely the improvement of himself and the improvement of his society. Thus a free man would use his time for such things as education, art, philosophy, politics, and religion. He would of course also spend some time on play and recreation, but only as much as he needed to keep himself healthy and rested. Play was a break from his life, not the purpose of it.

We’re different today. We enjoy even more personal freedom than the free men of the ancient world, but we conceive the aim of our free time to be play. Not content with making a living, we seek to become as affluent as possible, and are willing to work long hours to get there. In our time away from work we seek to rest and amuse ourselves. The activities of genuine leisure—the purpose of freedom in the ancient world—we have no use for, no “time” for.

Adler is saying that the result of this will be the disintegration of our society. Little by little it is degenerating into what Thomas Hobbes would have called the state of nature, a condition of the continuous war of all against all, each one striving for his own benefit with no real concern for the good of his society. This was the world in which Hobbes described life as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In the Western tradition there is only a single escape-hatch from this condition: liberal education. It is a deep and painful irony that liberal education is generally seen as an antiquated, impractical, elitist, and useless relic of a bygone era, instead of the only source of fresh water in the desert of our lives.

Maybe we’re not doomed—no one knows what the future will bring. For my part, I’m now, in middle age, pursuing a liberal education as best I can. I want to be part of a world that arrives at decisions by mutual agreement, not by violence; that won’t happen if I’m spending all my available time on cruises, golf, and video games. We need to crack a book not just to make a buck, but to make a difference.

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