Countering the achievement society (2018)
Phenomenology and Existentialism
It has almost become a cliché to characterize the time in which we live as the Age of Burnout. An increasing number of books, articles, and opinion editorials are being written on the subject of “the epidemic of vital exhaustion” (see for example, The Guardian’s recent piece, “How Burnout Became a Sinister and Insidious Epidemic”). My own interest and research into fatigue stems in large part from my work and observations in a university setting, where a common complaint (or perhaps boast?) of faculty, staff, administrators, and students is how exhausted we are. But fatigue is often linked to a host of other problems, including depression and anxiety, physical ailments, addiction issues, and in general, joylessness and a sense of alienation from one’s family, friends, community, and from oneself as a whole person.
Students are frequently the focus of a university’s efforts to (re)invigorate energies, prove the institution’s vitality, and increase the measurable outcomes for “success,” against the persistent threats of depletion of motivation, withdrawal, and perceived (or real) failure. Many of the attempts to enhance “student success” are technical or technological, like new software programs to track students’ grades, to analyze other “predictors” of their “outcomes,” and to send them automatic notifications indicating their grade-slippage in classes (as if regularly alerting them to their deficiencies will somehow generate greater motivation to achieve).
I would propose a more radical solution for cultivating successful students in our Burnout Age. Recalling that ‘radical’ stems from the Latin radicalis, ‘of or having roots’, my proposal is one that returns to fundamental roots of our humanity and of learning. It is also radical in the sense that it sounds quite simple, minimalist, and non-technological: I want to attend to leisure and its central place in the humane university.
In this reflection, I will first briefly describe some of the context contributing to fatigue and burnout in today’s students. Second, I will explain what I mean by “leisure,” and why I think it should be a central component in what might be called the “humane university” that genuinely nourishes student flourishing. And finally, I will describe a few of my own modest attempts to incorporate leisure in my classes, along with a cautionary note.
The Achievement Society and Fatigue
Consider these words from the 20th century French philosopher-social activist-mystic, Simone Weil, whom I have spent much of my academic career thinking and writing about. In an essay on school studies, she wrote:
”The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.”
“I have concluded that many university students today do not experience much desire, pleasure, or joy in relation to their studies. Rather, they report being consumed with stress, economic and social anxiety, and fatigue in the face of countless and growing demands.”
Unfortunately, from the many conversations I’ve had with students over the past 15 years, inside and outside of class, in addition to the many Chronicle of Higher Education articles devoted to the subject, I have concluded that many university students today do not experience much desire, pleasure, or joy in relation to their studies. Rather, they report being consumed with stress, economic and social anxiety, and fatigue in the face of countless and growing demands.
There are material worries, like: How will I pay rent (or pay back these student loans)? And there are existential crises that arise from the sense of never doing or being enough in the face of an unrelenting “achievement society”: How can I possibly manage to complete these four research papers, and fulfill the obligations of my internship, and keep up with emails, and attend to my friend who is suffering from a breakup, and participate in this important protest march, and get a few hours of sleep this week? While we need to address the rising costs of tuition and the economic hardships students face through greater fiscal transparency and responsibility, I want to focus on the second set of concerns, which affects nearly all students, regardless of university costs or setting.
I see this situation of fatigue as being typical for many of us (perhaps especially for university students) in this century, and the effects of being overwrought are already being documented and analysed. Philosopher and cultural studies theorist Byung-Chul Han depicts the signature pathologies marking our 21st century landscape as being “neurological illnesses such as depression, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, and burnout syndrome”. He goes on to say that what is characteristic of these maladies is that “they indicate an excess of positivity, that is, not negation so much as the inability to say no”. Such subjects are not suffering from restriction or prohibition, but a “being-able-to-do-everything.” But of course, the reality is that one cannot do everything; and the aspiration toward and the sense of limitless possibilities for accomplishment are not experienced as freedom but as impending failure and paralysis. As Han presciently notes, “The complaint of the depressive individual, ‘Nothing is possible,’ can only occur in a society which thinks, ‘Nothing is impossible’”. In this context, possibility (to ever-increase productivity, to achieve more) becomes an imperative—a “can” becomes a “must.”
Not surprisingly, the (inevitable) inability to accomplish everything (and at the highest quality and the quickest pace) in a university setting leads to despondency, “self-reproach and auto-aggression”, joylessness, and a thoroughly exhausted and eventually dehumanised student whose resulting struggles in her classes only compounds her anxiety. As theorists of work have pointed out, there is a paradox inhabiting the body of one who is overworked: s/he becomes unable to rest after being consumed by excessive activity for so long. Exhaustion is frequently characterised by sleeping disorders, and students who are deeply fatigued can not only lose the ability to rest, but also to focus, to enjoy life, and to foster and maintain connections with others.
At best, as Theodor Adorno argued, ‘free time’ becomes an escapist and superficial sort of ‘winding down,’ already structured by the forces from which we’re trying to escape (e.g., consumerist, or scheduled, or staring at screens). And this ‘free time’ is merely recuperating us for the recommencement of work. As a result, our bodies are colonised and shaped to the point where we become incapable of “true leisure” which, for Adorno “represents that sweet ‘oasis of unmediated life’ in which people detach from economic demands and become genuinely free for the world and its culture”.
There is no better illustration of this phenomenon than Charlie Chaplin’s character in the classic film Modern Times. As a factory worker employed to screw bolts onto parts on a conveyor belt, which was continually being sped up, Chaplin was ultimately wound through the gears of the factory, and he acquired a twitching, mechanised body that performed the same repetitive motions, even outside his work. Students, too, can forget their humanity and become alienated from their bodies, especially when their universities become more corporatised and factory-like.
Leisure and the Humane University
If one of the major obstacles for students is the ‘never-say-no’ ideology that is conducive to paralysing anxiety, burnout, and depression, then the university could play some role in being not only a refuge from those conditions, but also in being a proactive force for countering the instrumental way in which students and their educations are increasingly treated. If there is any value to being exhausted or broken, it is that we start seeing what has been too much. We often notice things for the first time when they break. And as more and more students are breaking under pressure, it is imperative to start attending to them and to the meaning of education. In fact, I contend that a serious look at the roots of schooling will mean a reclamation of our students’ humanity; I am interested in helping to create a humane university.
The origin of the word school is quite instructive: we get our word from the Greek scholē, which meant “leisure” or “spare time” or “learned conversation,” and eventually came to mean “a place for such leisurely discussion.” What could we discover from thinking of school as leisure? I would like to suggest four major components of scholē that might also be core values of a humane university.
First, there is a temporal and spatial dimension to scholē. Leisure means ‘spare time,’ and a ‘place for learned discussion’ that is not colonised by the utilitarian or by the world of business. In fact, the ancient Greeks saw business as a-scholia or ‘un-leisure.’ We might recall Adorno’s characterisation of leisure as the “oasis of unmediated life.” Scholē, then, requires that we embrace the slow, the artisanal… that we linger, savour, and take our time. In a recent article on ‘slow scholarship’, a feminist geography collective argue:
“The relentless acceleration of work will continue until we say ‘no’ to wildly outsized expectations of productivity. Those of us in more senior positions have the responsibility to share these strategies with and support the slowness of our students and earlier career colleagues. We seek slowness not only for ourselves, but as an attempt to change the academic cultures of our discipline and work places”.
Along similar lines, they argue we must make time for processes of thinking and writing ‘differently’, via strategies like unplugging and creating quiet spaces that allow minds to wander and creativity to flourish. How could we consciously cultivate slowed tempos and physical spaces of contemplation on our campuses? Could it begin with pausing one more minute after asking our students a difficult question? What about a two-hour lunch break once a week? What about a digital-free room, with soft lighting, art supplies, books, and no clocks on the wall?
Second, scholē is intimately connected to freedom and the liberal arts. According to A. Bartlett Giamatti (who was a professor of English Renaissance literature, President of Yale University, and the 7th Commissioner of Major League Baseball), historically, “artes liberalis were to be pursued because in their pursuit the muscle that is the mind was disciplined and toughened and thereby made more free to pursue new knowledge”. But he adds that the pursuit of the liberal arts was also meant to perpetuate “a condition of leisure,” wherein the mind fulfils itself through an exercise of choices whose goal is to extend the freedom to exercise the mind. While the ‘humanities’ have been subsumed as one aspect of the ‘liberal arts,’ it is more appropriate to say that artes liberalis are humanising. The humane university will foreground the study of liberal arts, not as a means to the end of better employment, but for their own sake.
“We fail to see that we strip schooling of its potency as an adventure with an undetermined end, an artistic exploration demanding experimentation and play, a joyful journey of discovery.”
This brings us to the third component of scholē: it is an autotelic activity, that is, one in which the goal is the full exercise of itself, for its own sake, and one that is inherently joyful and playful. In autotelic activities, conditions are achieved that are active (not passive), beautiful (not merely useful), and “perfecting of our humanity, not merely exploitative of it”, as Giamatti said. This means that scholē is about happiness. When students approach school instrumentally, it is often because they are being treated instrumentally—numbers in a classroom needed to justify this expansion of X program, or workers-in-training to contribute to the local economy. We have become so accustomed to ‘making a case’ for the economic usefulness of liberal arts that we fail to see that we strip schooling of its potency as an adventure with an undetermined end, an artistic exploration demanding experimentation and play, a joyful journey of discovery…and in the process of failing to remember all this, we also prepare students to be self-exploiting animal laborans who will chase ever-elusive performance benchmarks into their unfreedom. This is a cruel pedagogy.
Finally, scholē is communal. Giamatti describes: “Leisure as an ideal was a state of unforced harmony with others; it was, ideally, to live fully amidst activity, which activity has the characteristic of free time” . While Giamatti depicts American games that bring people together in leisure, like baseball, we can easily think of the activities of the university as necessitating community, with the common pleasures of being taken out of oneself through engagement with diverse perspectives. Harmony in scholē does not mean homogeneity, though; a harmony consists of different notes that can come together. Whereas in the context of sport, we might witness what seems to be a superhuman feat by a star athlete, in schooling-as-leisure, we might jointly encounter an idea, an image, a sound, or a passage that has a similar transcendent quality and effect. It is a moment in which “we are all free of all constraints of all kinds,” enriched by both the rituals of our shared community and by the ideals that are ennobling.
Why Schools Must Give Up the Myth of Success
I think a humane university that is truly centred on student success (understood holistically) embodies all of these qualities, at the very least: It will make time and spaces for careful contemplation, play, and artistic endeavour; it will foreground the liberal arts as a praxis of freedom; it will frame and treat learning as processes that are beautiful and joyful in their own right, and students as whole persons with intrinsic value; and it will enhance social harmony, not through management or meaningless slogans, but through actively seeking and valuing diverse perspectives so that the messy work of transforming a crowd into a community can be democratic and self-directed.
Some Modest Examples and a Cautionary Note
I have attempted, in my own teaching, to foster student success through implementing what could be considered practices of scholē. To begin, I recall from my own days of being a student that the antidote to leisure in learning is busywork: work that is assigned, seemingly to generate more “points” or to take up more time. In some cases busywork manifests as a set of arbitrarily constructed obstacles through which a trained and docile student must pass (like a show horse) to get to the finish line.
That is, many hurdles have been historically created for students and assumed to be continuing assurances of quality; but too often, those tests suffer from inattention and lack of updating—they become (or always were) meaningless, irrelevant “hoops” to jump through. Wherever I can identify those hoops, I try to eliminate them, as they frequently cause a sense of drudgery for students, as well as for faculty and staff.
But meaningful challenges are a different thing altogether, and I think they can be a primary source of joy for students (and faculty). In various classes of mine, I have sought to bring the ideas of the philosophers/theorists to life by asking students to engage in experiments with me. In my Phenomenology classes, for example, after we read about how to shift visual perception to see phenomena in radically new ways, we visit our art museum on campus. There, we take in the latest exhibit, but we avoid looking at the title and description plates, so that what we perceive won’t be skewed. We all write down our initial impressions, and then I ask my students to alter their perception by standing very close or very far away from the work, for example.
The point is to recognise how, given more time and by deliberately taking up different stances, a phenomenon can be read in multiple ways, challenging our initial knee-jerk interpretations. This exercise takes practice and is a disciplined, though play-full, mode of perception that can be translated to how we encounter the world at large. We talk about how this openness can be helpful in listening to others, or in holding back pre-judgments, or in simply having more fulfilling aesthetic experiences.
I have also learned to slow down my classes, sometimes by teaching fewer books in a course and having fewer assignments, so that more time can be spent dwelling on and wrestling with core questions that arise. Also, in some classes, rather than quizzing or testing students, their assignment is to bring me a number of questions from the reading assignments over the semester. We talk about what good questions are, and we use their questions to structure class conversations. I learn not only more about what they comprehend in this way, but I also love the greater sense of collaboration and mutual investment in problems with the students. I believe these practices contribute to ‘student success’ by actively inculcating a kind of leisurely, though serious, attention to problems that matter, which is a nourishing, rather than depleting process.
So what if a university were to reclaim scholē as a way of becoming more humane to its students? It would require administrators, faculty, and staff to model a way of being and relating that is admittedly a break from the status quo of the instrumentally-driven ‘achievement society.’ Detractors might then worry that students won’t be ready for what meets them in the broader world, but the approach I’ve described wouldn’t mean lack of preparation for what exists, but instead, preparation to critically and creatively investigate, so as to transform, what exists.
“We teachers owe it to our students to enable them to be visionaries for the future, not just processors of the present.”
To borrow a metaphor from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s description (in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”) of how the church should lead in relation to racial justice, the university should not be a ‘thermometer’ merely reflecting the patterns of broader society, but should be a ‘thermostat’ which sets the temperature and standards for a better environment. We teachers owe it to our students to enable them to be visionaries for the future, not just processors of the present.
I will conclude with a word of caution: If we, individually or institutionally, pursue scholē as a praxis of liberation, we must be careful to ensure that our cultivated leisure, openness, joy, and play do not come at the expense of another’s humanity or well-being. A humane university must be centered on an inclusive politics that is attentive to the situations of those who are less protected, more vulnerable, and liable to exploitation. Feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed writes, “If the freeing up of time and energy depends on other people’s labor, we are simply passing our exhaustion on to others”.
If leisure in my life and in my classes means that my part-time, adjunct colleagues must take on more work, then I must seek a different instantiation of scholē that does not displace burdens, exacerbate disparities, or ask others to be more “resilient.” We should also be wary of the exhaustion of the privileged, and be able to recognise when upset is due to the needed dismantling of unchecked and insensitive power. We need to educate ourselves and our students for this discernment between privilege as an energy-saving device (not having to think about certain things that affect others), and scholē as a reorientation of energy that generates a caring community founded on open, learned and critical dialogue.