This post originally appeared on the Degreed blog.
What is the purpose of education? This is a question many are asking right now, particularly as the costs of higher education (and the student debt burden) rise and the employment rate, especially among recent college graduates, remains high. Liberal arts programs are increasingly being forced to justify their existence as the tide turns in favor of vocational programs, which prepare students for jobs and careers.
Turns out, this is not a new question. In an excellent article for JSTOR Daily, Livia Gershon explores a time, about a century ago, when a different idea about the purpose of education became popular: helping people make the most of their leisure time.
“Education for leisure” was the complete opposite of vocational education. Rather than preparing learners for careers, the goal of education for leisure was to enrich their spare time through good books, art appreciation, and the like. This was seen as essential as workdays and workweeks became shorter, leaving people with more time on their hands. Gershon quotes Althea A. Payne, who states that education was necessary to help working men, whose hours were being cut, to use their leisure “profitably.”
Gershon’s article traces the history of education for a purpose other than work and how the idea has declined over time. While reading it, it occurred to me that a new type of education for leisure is taking place, not in formal classrooms but in informal courses like MOOCs. Several surveys about why people take MOOCs have found that the most popular reason is intellectual curiosity, with improving job skills usually coming second or third.
Perhaps education for leisure isn’t gone; it has just changed. People do value intellectual pursuits that teach them how to spend their free time (why else would tens of thousands of people sign up for a course on modern and contemporary American poetry?), but in today’s economic climate they can’t justify the cost of getting that education via the traditional route. For those who fear that new trends toward competency-based and vocational education might spell the end of liberal arts, the fact that millions of learners around the world are seeking out these courses on their own should provide a glimmer of hope.