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Education and the Common Good: A Moral Philosophy of the Curriculum by Philip H. Phenix


Philip H. Phenix was educated at Princeton University, Union Theological Seminary, and Columbia University. He was formerly Dean of Carleton College, and was professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Published by Harper & Brothers, 1961. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 8: Recreation


Ideally recreation is a bulwark of democracy, because in leisure-time pursuits it is possible for a person to choose his activity as a free individual. Work is generally more regulated and less subject to personal preference than recreation. Certainly it cannot be so readily discontinued or exchanged for another kind as can recreation. Generally one can engage in many different sorts of leisure activities, according to inclination and occasion. In this realm the individual is his own master; he is free to determine the use of his time as he will.

The values to be realized in recreation are not the same as in other forms of conduct. The usual contrast is made between work and recreation. The differences here are mainly twofold. First, work is more to be evaluated by reference to social purposes than is recreation; recreation is more purely individual in its relevance. Thus, the values of personal uniqueness and individual variability are particularly central in the life of leisure. It is in this domain that uniformity, conformity, repetition, and standardization are most effectively overcome and the true fruits of creativity are realized. Second, work and recreation differ in the duration of their respective purposes. Work is devoted to more enduring purposes than is play. Leisuretime activity is more frequently consummated within a brief span of time as compared with the years-long cumulative character of most work. A game is played, a picture is painted, or a garden is cultivated, and each activity is regarded by the amateur as a complete experience, rounded out within minutes, hours, or months, as the case may be, while for the worker -- in the parallel cases of professional player, artist, or farmer -- these achievements are but incidents within a continuous career. Recreation serves the special values of short-term consummation. These are the values that were analyzed in our discussion of esthetic excellence in Chapter 5. Recreation thus provides unique opportunities for both individual differentiation and esthetic creativity.

The development of modern machine technology in industrial society has wrought profound changes in the relationship between work and leisure, with correspondingly far-reaching effects on the values of civilization. Now that machines have taken so much of the burden of work off menís shoulders, the time each person must devote to labor has dramatically decreased. Leisure time has moved from its former peripheral position in the economy of life to become a major fact of existence. Until recently, recreation for the ordinary person was relegated to the few marginal hours remaining after the long and heavy weekís work had been done, and to the occasional holiday. Because of machine power this condition no longer obtains. Of the 168 hours of the week, fewer than 40 -- less than 25 per cent -- are ordinarily claimed by a job. Leisure is thus no longer the privilege of a select few; science and invention have been a great support to democracy.

The average worker has been so far released from wearing toil that the privileges of "aristocrats" and "ordinary people" have been exchanged. Contemporary aristocrats -- the people with the best education and the greatest ability -- labor harder than ever at their increasingly complex tasks, while people with lesser endowments of energy and intelligence now have time to spare. The leisured gentlemen of former times are now too busy to cultivate their recreation properly, and those who have been relieved from toil and given the liberty of children of abundance do not usually have the traditions of civility and the habits of discrimination to enable them to use their free time wisely.

In this way recreation in advanced industrial societies has become a dominant mass phenomenon. Leisure-time pursuits are no longer marginal, nor is their style any longer set by a relatively small group of privileged people. Since recreation is a major preoccupation of the great majority of people, the nature of leisure-time activities profoundly affects the whole tone of cultural life. By and large that tone has been set by the pleasure principle. The average person associates recreation with freedom from responsibility, with having fun, with doing what one wants to do.

In view of the transformations in the human situation effected by technology, we may expect the role of leisure to be increasingly influential in modern society. Does this mean that civilization will be more and more dominated by the pleasure principle? Not necessarily. Recreation is not inevitably tied to the pursuit of satisfaction; there is no inherent conflict between recreation and loyalty to the good. Given the importance of recreation in modern culture, the central imperative is to cultivate forms of recreation that are in accord with standards of qualitative excellence. Only by so doing will leisure activities contribute to the strengthening of democracy.

We are now in a position to discuss the place of recreation in democratic education. Every person needs to be prepared not only for an occupation and for assuming the responsibilities of participation in civic life, but also for using his leisure time well. Hence, recreation is a proper educational concern, and the nurture of recreational capacities is a part of the teaching task.

This educational responsibility is by no means universally recognized. It is widely assumed that children do not need to be taught how to play, and that education should deal only with preparation for such long-term pursuits as vocation, family life, and citizenship. According to this assumption, recreation is what a child does on his own at those times when he is not being educated. Play time is "free time," to do with as one wishes, unconstrained by parents and teachers and without the directives and judgments of explicit education.

Conscientious parents and teachers are much concerned with how a child uses his play time. They know that he does not cease to learn when he is not being formally instructed. In fact, they are aware that he often learns much more from the experiences of play time than from classroom disciplines. Wise parents accordingly take pains to provide their young with healthful opportunities for recreation and to live in a physical and social environment that will afford a constructive play life.

The educative effect of recreation holds for adults as well as for, children. Every person continues to learn throughout life, both in his occupation and in his leisure pursuits. The special educational significance of the latter lies in the freedom they afford for self-direction, experimentation, and broadening of personal perspective and competence.

Granted that recreation is of educational import, the question remains of where it should be taught. In particular, should the schools leave the teaching of recreation to parents and to other social agencies specifically designed for that function, or should instruction for the right use of leisure be a part of the school curriculum? The position taken here is that both schools and other institutions and agencies should assume this responsibility. Opponents of this view point to the overburdening of school curriculums with the most diverse conglomeration of subjects, to the detriment of the "basic" intellectual studies. They point also to the rapid expansion of knowledge and technical skill required for effective living in the modern age, and they ask how the schools, with their limited share of the studentís time, can afford to spend any of it on instruction in recreation, which they believe he either does not need or can get outside of school.

These critics err in their estimate of the contemporary cultural situation, in their understanding of what recreation is, and in their appraisal of the relation between work and play. Recreation is no longer on the margins of life; it is a major factor, if not the major one, in determining the tone and temper of mass culture. Properly conceived, recreation is as serious and demanding as any work, and preparation for it calls for the highest level of intellectual discipline. Furthermore, recreation cannot without serious distortion of personality be compartmentalized as the advocates of "work only" schools recommend. Work and play are intimately intertwined, and the school in educating for one educates for the other also. Schools are for the education of integral persons, and while some specialization of responsibilities among social institutions is desirable, no such vital and inseparable aspect of learning as recreation should be eliminated from the program of the schools.

Recreation education is the common responsibility of many different agencies -- homes, schools, community service groups, clubs and other voluntary organizations, the mass media, adult education agencies, libraries, and even business organizations. This plurality of responsible agencies removes from the schools the necessity for actually providing the major share of recreational facilities. It does not, however, make any less imperative the inclusion of recreational concerns within the school curriculum, for it is in the program of formal education that meaning, perspective, and direction in leisure activity may best be taught.

The pleasure principle, which is commonly taken for granted as appropriate in recreation, has influenced the whole of educational practice. Many teachers believe that all learning should be "fun." They have adopted the "happiness" approach to teaching, avoiding anything unpleasant or painful either to themselves or to the students. The children are treated as playmates and pals; conflicts are minimized; and discipline, the exercise of authority, and, above all, punishment are shunned. The same principles have taken hold in many families, where sweetness and light and good times have been the primary objectives of family living.

The consequences of this primary pursuit of pleasure are a general lowering of standards, disrespect for authority, disorderliness, and loss of morale by teachers (or parents) and students alike. Enjoyment turns out in experience not to be a viable foundation for educational practice. It is a delusion that learning can be improved by making it pleasant. While such an approach may engage the interests of the students temporarily, it does them a long-term disservice by encouraging them in attitudes and habits that are ultimately life-destroying. Education cannot be securely founded on any such superficial and deceptive play philosophy. Whether it be pleasant or painful, it needs to rest on the enduring foundation of loyalty to the good. Even learning to play well is not always pleasant. The good player accepts the bitter with the sweet as ingredients in a good game. The disciplines of high recreation are as exacting as those of any vocation. Learning how to use leisure time well is a rigorous process demanding the highest level of devotion by teachers and students alike.

The increasing importance of leisure in modern society makes it appropriate that recreational considerations should assume major significance in education. There is every reason why the spirit of recreation should pervade the schools. But to affirm this is not to endorse the "fun" philosophy. A sound concept of recreation is rooted in value rather than in enjoyment. Education ought to be "creative" and `íre-creative" throughout. It ought to be suffused with the joy, exhilaration, expectation, and excitement which accompany a hard-fought contest for worthy ends. If modern man can learn to use his free time well, he will live well generally, for the employment of leisure is the measure of selfhood. Thus, when recreation is rightly conceived, it is a suitable major guiding concern for education as a whole.

These considerations constitute the justification for what is commonly called a "liberal education." A liberal education, literally and historically, means education for men of leisure -- men who are free to choose what they will do with their lives, men who are not slaves. Before the machine age liberal education was necessarily aristocratic, because only a few could enjoy sufficient leisure to make education for it necessary or desirable. With the general emancipation effected by technology, liberal education has become a democratic possibility. All persons are now entitled to leisure, and all are in need of education for the wise use of their freedom. To assert that modern education should be infused with the ideals of recreation is to affirm the centrality of liberal studies in the curriculum.

Traditional liberal education centered around classical literature. It required the mastery of the Greek and Latin languages and the study of the great works of Hellenic and Roman antiquity. Mathematics, which is actually another kind of language, was included among the subjects carried over from ancient times. Philosophy, history, poetry, and drama were also taught not as specialized departments of knowledge, but as components of the classical literary tradition. This study of the classics, which for generations had comprised the ideal of liberal education in Europe and America at least until the beginning of the twentieth century, provided men of leisure with a common body of language and thought and a set of symbols of distinction which set them apart from ordinary people. Furthermore, it furnished approved models of excellence, which served to inspire and direct successive generations of students toward the peaks of civilized achievement.

Within the present century this traditional concept of liberal education has been under heavy attack. Although some educators still cling to it with fervent tenacity, most regard it as out of keeping with the conditions and needs of modern industrial democracy. It is hardly cause for wonder that a curriculum designed for the privileged few m a largely agrarian society should prove unsuited to the needs of the new era of universal leisure in an industrialized society. The attack has frequently been directed at the idea of liberal education itself, apart from its classical form. The "useless" education for leisure, best represented by the traditional studies, has been despised because it supposedly does not increase oneís occupational efficiency. In the busy, striving age of progress, the study of the classics has seemed a luxury few could and none should afford. It has also been supposed that leisure would take care of itself, since it was regarded as requiring no positive attainment, but only the natural capacity for relaxation and pleasure.

This rejection of liberal education of any kind is unwarranted. Hopefully, we are not yet willing to write off the ideals of human freedom for the sake of productive efficiency. Nor can we ignore the urgent need for educating modern man to employ his leisure well. If classical liberal education will not suffice for todayís needs, what kind will? This is the question to which an answer is required if the authentic re-creative character of education is to be attained.

Liberal education for modern democracy should be developed in accord with the following six principles. First, it should remain true to the nature of recreation as devoted to intrinsic consummatory values. Liberal studies are to be prized in and for themselves and not for the sake of other purposes to which they may contribute. True humane learning -- the learning that sets men free -- is justified mainly by the intrinsic value of what is learned, not by its usefulness. It is not a tool for better adjustment, of whatever kind, but an opportunity for love and loyalty to what is recognized as excellent. In this respect ideal modern liberal education agrees with the allegedly useless classical education. Both are dedicated to intrinsic worth. This principle of value in and for itself is violated when what are termed liberal studies (and what may be so for other students) are pursued for the purpose of becoming a professional in liberal learning (as scholar and teacher). Many a student of the traditional liberal arts approaches them in just as utilitarian a fashion as the usual student in pharmacy or engineering approaches his studies, and much of the instruction in the liberal arts is in fact technical and occupational in character. True liberal learning requires no ulterior justification. It is to be loved first and used secondarily.

The second principle that should govern modern liberal education is the primacy of qualitative excellence. Like the first, this ideal is also shared with classical liberal learning. The new liberal education should remain classical in the sense that its materials are to be drawn from the high points of civilized achievement. What a person does as a free man -- in his leisure -- ought to be a source of elevation and inspiration, a means of re-creation, not an occasion for stagnation or degradation. Recreation should be measured by rigorous standards, not marked by a relaxation of standards, and the same rule applies to the liberal education by which a person is prepared for such activities. Thus, the curriculum of liberal studies is to be guided primarily by concern for high quality, not by considerations of student popularity and interest -- though these may be welcome by-products.

The following three principles distinguish the desirable new liberal education from the traditional liberal arts. The third ideal is that of progress. The old liberal education made use of a relatively fixed corpus of standard materials. It was assumed that these were of permanent worth and that no changes or improvements were necessary. The result was the neglect of important recent products of civilization and the loss of a sense of contemporary relevance. Liberal education should not be based upon a circumscribed canonical body of literature. It should be open to new developments and subject to continuous appraisal and revision in the light of the criteria of excellence. This is not to be taken as implying an automatic preference for the new over the old. Since the persistent civilizing power of a work is one of the signs of its worth, well-tested traditions have an edge over innovations. Liberal studies should not be antitraditional; they should not be partial to novelty and obvious contemporary relevance. The principle of progress simply means that the education of a free man should draw upon the resources of civilized excellence from all periods of history and should be fashioned with due regard to the profound changes taking place in the modern world.

Fourth, modern liberal studies ought to reflect the differences among human beings. Not only should there be progress; there should also be variety. Traditional liberal studies were the same for everybody. They provided a kind of lingua franca for the educated elite. In todayís pluralistic democracy no such uniformity is appropriate. People cannot be forced into a single common mold. There is no one uniform way of excellence. Differences in temperament and in native capacities make persons respond in different ways to the same situations, and indicate the need for educational provisions of considerable latitude. Particularly in an age where leisure is nearly everybodyís privilege, it is not to be expected that each will use his freedom in the same manner. If a standard course of liberal studies is provided under these conditions, many people will fail to find therein their own pathway to excellence and will lose the recreational preparation that a more varied program would have offered.

This need for variety can be met by a good modern liberal education because of a fifth principle which it satisfies -- namely, breadth of scope. In this respect modern liberal education differs most markedly from the traditional classical education. The older studies, as already suggested, were linguistic, literary, and mathematical. Modern liberal education is far broader. It includes the natural sciences, the social studies, and the fine arts, too. In fact, it has at length become evident that the content of a study is not what makes it "liberal" or otherwise, and that any subject of study can be included in a liberal education, provided it is treated in a liberal fashion. What does it mean to treat it in such a way? It means to deal with it in relation to its universal humane relevance; that is, as it pertains to the loyalties of men unconstrained by physical and social necessities.

From this point of view, liberal education may appropriately be concerned with anything in the whole range of human experience. Clearly the sciences are admirably suited for the growth of loyalty to truth as an intrinsic value and to the human communities that truth in its many formulations brings into being. Studies in such fields as law, education, and theology, which are commonly (and properly) thought of as vocational in orientation, may also be approached from the liberal standpoint as vehicles for devotion to civilized values. Even obviously practical skills like carpentry and welding can be taught liberally by exhibiting their manifold relationships within the fabric of civilization and by employing them as occasions for the deliberate celebration and embodiment of inherent excellence.

Classical liberal learning was more exclusively bookish than the modern type proposed here. It was more obviously "intellectual." But this should not be construed as approval for nonintellectual practical or manual activity within the scope of liberal education. Liberal learning must include intellectual apprehension, or it is not an activity befitting a free man -- that is, a person who guides his life in accordance with the inward persuasion of the good. Thus, an unlimited range of subjects are appropriate to liberal education, provided they are taught in a liberal manner. This breadth of scope is the basis for a program of liberal studies in a pluralistic democracy in which all the citizens are expected to participate.

The last of the six principles has to do with the organization of the curriculum. Classical liberal education was essentially general, because of its reliance upon literary works of broad human pertinence. Modern scholarship has become increasingly specialized along narrow departmental lines, and instruction has tended to follow the same pattern. At the present time much of what is called liberal education in the arts and sciences is organized as a collection of specialized studies. The requisite breadth of learning is supposed to be insured by the requirement for "distribution" of courses, to prevent a poorly balanced program. This type of curricular organization does not in fact usually achieve the aims of liberal learning. Specialized courses, which are conducted within the strict limits of a technical discipline, may be excellent preparation for the professional worker in that field; they are not likely to provide for the best use of leisure by the liberated modern man. The latter needs "general education" studies of a high order. These do not refer to those sterile and boring courses which teach many things in general and nothing in particular, nor to broad surveys which never go deeply into anything. "General education" here means studies that are carried out with primary concern for their universal human relevance and with due attention to those ideas of fundamental importance which span the gulfs between the specialized disciplines.

If modern liberal education is to provide for the nurture of free men, it must regain the ideal of generality which characterized the traditional liberal arts, but it must do so without sacrificing the variety and scope made possible by modern advances in knowledge. The curriculum should be organized in response to the need for integrity and depth of outlook rather than primarily to serve the purposes of professional academic scholars. Even specialized subjects that are not themselves interdisciplinary should, for purposes of general education, be related with other fields. Many -- if not most -- studies -- such as literature, philosophy, history, religion, geography, and anthropology (to name only some of them) -- by their very nature draw upon a variety of other fields of study and thus are particularly suited to general education, provided they are not ruined for that purpose by professional zeal to make them into precise, technical, exclusive disciplines -- as occurs even in such a naturally general field as literature, when its promoters restrict it to technical textual analysis.

Liberal studies ought not, of course, to comprise the whole of education. Provision should be made at all ages and levels for both vocational and recreational preparation. Even in the play-school activities of the very young, matters of vocational import, such as correct speech, are learned. At the other extreme, college and university education, even in the graduate and professional schools, should never completely exclude liberal-recreational studies. Furthermore, the two varieties of study can never -- and ought never -- be sharply separated from one another. They should interfuse with one another in a mutually supportive fashion. With skillful teaching it is often possible for the same course of study to be vocational for those students who need it to be and a liberal study for those who do not.

In fact, when concern for worth governs, the distinction largely vanishes between labor and leisure, occupation and recreation, and the respective kinds of education which prepare for each. Work that issues from devotion is no longer a slaveís burden, and play is no longer the pseudo liberty of one who seeks escape from himself and his condition. Both are forms of a free manís service. Labor is performed in the same freedom of spirit as play is, and leisure is occupied in fulfilling the vocation to be a man.

In education for true liberty, whether in work or play, it thus appears that the spirit of liberal learning should prevail. Liberal education -- in contrast to vocational education, in the usual sense of that term -- is fundamental in that it is concerned with the ends of all living, toward which both labor and leisure are aimed. It opens the way to consummatory values, which contain the meanings and sustain the purposes of life. It provides for the understanding and perspective that yield the sense of wholeness, balance, and proportion to human existence. Under modern conditions, with changes occurring so rapidly that most specific occupational preparation becomes quickly out of date, it even appears that a fundamental liberal education is the best vocational education, for it develops the powers of imagination needed to meet new situations and the understanding of interrelationships required by life in an increasingly interdependent civilization. Hence, the recreative spirit may and should infuse and transform occupational effort, and the ideals of liberal learning become the measure of fundamental vocational study.

This view of recreation in a democracy of worth entails a transformation of our whole educational philosophy and practice. In the ultimate view education is re-creation. It is the process of reproducing high civilization in human personality. The fundamental presupposition in this view is that the activities by which persons are brought to true freedom issue from loyalty to what is true and right, which is the only sure and enduring source of creative energy. The home or the school that is founded on the re-creative idea is not partial to the easy and the pleasant path. It is profound and serious in spirit and purpose; it is exacting and disciplined in method and program. Its motive is not the desire for efficiency or for social control, but rather a glad response to the lure of perfection, from which true liberty springs.

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