What is the purpose of education? What is the difference between liberal and vocational education? What is leisure? What is the difference between leisure and work? What is the difference between living and living well? What does leisure have to do with living well? Mortimer Adler in his lecture, "Labor, Leisure, and Liberal Education" addresses these issues. I have read this lecture multiple times over the years. Recently I read it again and was reminded about the importance of liberal education. It is the education that not only prepares us for our career, but how to make the best use of our time our whole life. It teaches us how to live well.
The lecture's main theme is the "distinction between labor and leisure." Though this is the main theme he addresses liberal education in both the beginning and the end of this lecture. The reason he focuses on the distinction between labor and leisure is because without recognizing this distinction, the hearer cannot understand the purpose of a liberal education. Adler believes we can only understand liberal education by understanding its end. And the end of liberal education "lies in the use we make of our leisure, in the activities with which we occupy our leisure time."
To support this thesis Adler proceeds in the following way. First he provides a definition of "liberal education in terms of leisure;" second, he explains the distinctions between work and leisure; third, he draws out implications "for the place of liberal education in an industrial democracy like our."
Now, I would like to describe some of the points he makes that seems significant to me. He tells us that education is a "practical activity" which seeks to improve men and women. There are two ways they can be improved. First, the focus can be improving their specific talents and abilities; or second, it can seek to improve the functions that common to all people. Adler associates a general education with liberal education. What I believe is really significant is that Adler describes the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic ends. Leisure activities are activities that are associated with intrinsic ends. These are "private excellences by which a man perfects his own nature, and those public excellences which can be translated into the performance of his moral or political duty." In other words, the ends are in the activity itself. Extrinsic ends would be work that we do to get a living from. One way to look at work is that it is something we do to earn money to get the things we need or want. Work is compulsory and leisure is voluntary. Work can be leisure if it is done for intrinsic ends, like perfecting ourselves in its pursuit.
An important point of this lecture is that we need a liberal education to be able to pursue leisurely activities. These are "intrinsically good activities which are both self-rewarding and meaningful beyond themselves." Adler states that leisurely activities are "such things as thinking or learning, reading or writing, conversation or correspondence, love and acts of friendship, political activity, domestic activity, artistic and esthetic activity." Vocational education has its place. It prepares you for work or a career. It cannot, prepare you or equip you to use leisurely activities well. It does not prepare you to keep learning your whole life. It helps you meet your subsistence needs, but not to live well. It is liberal education that prepares you and equips you to continue to learn and use leisurely activities well.
Adler makes an interesting observation about the difference between children and adults in regards to schooling:
"Liberal education can involve work simply because we find it necessary to compel children to begin, and for some years to continue, their educations. Whenever you find an adult, a chronological adult, who thinks that learning or study is work, let me say that you have met a child. One sign that you are grown up, that you are no longer a child, is that you never regard any part of study or learning as work. As long as learning or study has anything compulsory about it, you are still in the condition of childhood. The mark of truly adult learning is that it is done with thought of labor or work at all, with no sense of compulsory. It is entirely voluntary."
Let me leave you with one other quote that sums it all up:
"It is clear, I think, that liberal education is absolutely necessary for human happiness, for living a good human life. The most prevalent human ills are two: a man's discontent with the work he does and the necessity of having to kill time. Both these ills can be, in part, cured by liberal education. Liberal schooling prepares for a life of learning and for the leisure activities of a whole lifetime. Adult liberal education is an indispensable part of the life of leisure, which is a life of learning."
Thank you Mortimer for these excellent thoughts. Adler is kind of a hero for me. He devoted his life to this type of learning. I yearn to follow in his footsteps.