On leisure and class

Win a copy of "Lost in Thought" by Zena Hitz, some worthwhile readings, and more!

Gracious Reader,

This week, we’ll explore:

  • The relationship between leisure and class

  • Giveaway: “Lost in Thought” by Zena Hitz

  • Some worthwhile readings

The relationship between leisure and class

Last week at CR, we discussed scholē, the concept of leisure that helped promote a cultural renaissance in Ancient Greece.

As you might have guessed, scholē gives us our modern word for school. This seems ironic since today the last thing students have, both in K-12 institutions and in higher education, is unstructured leisure time—time to think and reflect on all the things they’re learning. The busyness doesn’t end at graduation either, as many of us know. It continues apace throughout our lives.

The struggle to find time to read and think deeply is always with us.

The good news, though, is that there is hope for each of us—students and adults alike—to incorporate habits and rituals of leisure time into our everyday. And I have some ideas for how we can do that—which I hope to explore in this CR issue, as well as in my next book.

How does social class play into this conversation of leisure?

I’m reflecting on the relationship between class and leisure because I just finished reading Paul Fussell’s rather interesting book on social class in America, Class: A guide through the American status system.

He makes some interesting—and sometimes funny—observations:

  • America—the land of equality—is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of social classes. That doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, however. It simply means that our society has not inherited rank, title, or other honors; we must instead create our hierarchies anew each generation. This idea is inextricably linked to the American view of meritocracy and the “American Dream”: that with hard work and grit we can create our own destiny. A result of lacking strict, preset hierarchies, though, is that Americans are perpetually status conscious. As Fussell says, “If you find an American who feels entirely class-secure, stuff and exhibit him. He’s a rare specimen.”

  • There is a difference between economic and social class. Economic class has to do with wealth, and is relatively easy to quantify and classify. Social class is broader; it incorporates attributes and habits such as taste, consumption, language, mannerisms, and more. One can have a bank account that reflects one class, and mannerisms and taste that reflect another.

  • For Fussell, a defining point of the upper class is that they have nothing to prove. He says they’re a little less formal than the middle class because they know the rules of politeness well-enough to break them. Their clothes are a bit unkempt—although, of course, of the highest quality materials—because, again, they have no have no one to impress. By contrast, members of the middle class, constantly striving to appear upper-class, are a little too put together. Middle classers, he contends, like to pretend they are learned and well read; they are the sort to have Great Books on their shelves. They are also the biggest snobs: they’re constantly looking out for people making social blunders so that that they can feel superior by comparison. This point relates to my work on civility: Middle-class status anxiety makes middle classers the ones most likely to weaponize manners, matters of taste, and The Rules of politeness.

  • Middle and lower classes like to dine out, Fussell says, because it is a chance for them to order people around and feel like they have power and superiority over others—something they lack in their everyday lives.

  • Lower class people— “proles” is the rather unflattering label Fussell adopts— love home-delivered catalogues because receiving them means that someone thinks they have power to make decisions and purchases. They prefer home shopping to shopping in public because, when interacting with others, there is always a chance someone disputes their power and humiliates them, which is what they fear most.

I found some parts of the book insightful, others terribly elitist, and some rather tragic—such as his depiction of the various ways in which people are terrified of social humiliation. (And to be honest, it’s difficult to know when Fussell might be joking and when he is serious.) After painstakingly detailing the psyche, habits, and norms of America’s different social classes—Fussell offers a surprising conclusion, one relevant to our conversation on leisure.

Fussell final chapter, entitled, The X Way Out, offers an answer to the problems and anxieties associated with social class in America.

He paints a portrait of what he calls Xs, the “classless class.” Xs transcend social class, Fussell says, because they are self-determining, self-cultivated, and non-conformist.

They engage in strenuous effort of self discovery. They are original, innovative, and and curious.

Secure in their own skin, they prize their autonomy more than anything, and shirk society’s attempts to tell them to behave a certain way. They are often self-employed, and Fussell calls them “unmoneyed aristocracy.”

They love beauty, learning, good books, and good quality for its own sake—not to impress anyone else.

In contrast to the power-grasping classes, Fussell claims that “Feeling no insecure need to display themselves in the act of dominating inferiors by issuing orders and demanding whims be honored, they avoid eating out.”

Xs learn to acquire information for the pleasure of it. They possess curiosity—about others and the world, everyone and everywhere—without limit. They show us the way to escape our social class, whatever it happens to be.

And, Fussell says, the good news is that we can all become Xs.

Fussell’s discussion of the X class seems entirely serious, though his specificity can at times be unintentionally funny. He says, for example, that Xs love “I love Lucy”—which, don’t get me wrong, is a great show! But again, oddly specific. It is easy to wonder whether here Fussell is simply describing his own preferences and predilections.

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Yet, for all his foibles, Fussell does get at an important insight.

Fussell recognizes that becoming part of the “X class” has nothing to do with wealth or the acquisition of things—one definition of luxury I offered last week. Instead, it’s about developing a frame of mind that cultivates and utilizes one’s time and intellect—a definition I offered of leisure last week.

Whatever lot we are born into, we can gain self-knowledge and cultivate our tastes through independent study. Self-cultivation and education offer each of us the chance to understand who we are, what we stand for, what we love and enjoy, and what we want out of life.

Today, there is no question that there are huge disparities in wealth and privilege. Each of us should be concerned about this, and we each have a duty to look for ways to alleviate the suffering of those who are less privileged than we are.

Yet even the most under-privileged among us have the chance to self-cultivate. Indeed, there are good arguments to be made they they stand to benefit from doing so most. No education is complete without grappling with life’s big questions—who are we? why are we here? what is the best way to live? Underprivileged individuals today deserve an opportunity to answer those questions for themselves; doing so offers dignity and pride, and helps us discern what we want of life, what we will stand for and what we won’t.

Today, technology and economic development has left us wealthier and with more discretionary time than any other time in history. This prosperity gives each of us a chance to be part of the classless leisured class.

How might we use this unique opportunity and start a Civic Renaissance today?

Send me your thoughts at ah@alexandraohudson.com

Giveaway: “Lost in Thought” by Zena Hitz

On this topic, there is a lovely new book out that makes the case for leisure, learning and so much more. The author is Zena Hinz, a tutor at St. John’s College, famous for its Great Books program. Her book is all about scholē and the high promise of rediscovering the love of learning for learning’s sake.

So much of our educational culture today is instrumentalized. It’s a means to an end. We get good grades to get into a good college. We get into a good college to get a good job. We get a good job so we can get promoted and earn more money and buy a bigger house and car and impress our friends.

And we do all this, in theory, so eventually we can be truly happy.

But rediscovering a love of learning for its own sake—not as a means to an end—offers us the chance to enjoy the journey of life along the way; it gives us an opportunity to avoid grinding our teeth and holding our breath until we achieve a certain goal or get to a certain destination.

Zena’s book reminds us that the life of the mind is for each of us—and that the life of the mind can start today. You can enjoy the review of this book in the Wall Street Journal here.

I’m giving away THREE copies of her book. If you’d like a chance to win, send me a note with the subject line LOST IN THOUGHT to ah@alexandraohudson.com

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Worth reading

  1. A weapon in the hands of the restless poor—this is an amazing essay in Harper’s by Earl Shoris about the Clemente Course in the Humanities, a course that offers low income and minority students a chance to encounter great ideas and the Great Conversation.

Below is one of my favorite passages from this essay. It powerfully shows how and why all people—but especially the historically marginalized—can benefit from studying Great Books:

“If the Founders loved the humanities so much, how come they treated the natives so badly?”

I didn’t know how to answer this question. There were confounding explanations to offer about changing attitudes toward Native Americans, vaguely useful references to views of Rousseau and James Fenimore Cooper. For a moment I wondered if I should tell them about Heidegger’s Nazi past. Then I saw Abel Lomas’s raised hand at the far end of the table. “Mr. Lomas,” I said.

Abel said, “That’s what Aristotle means by incontinence, when you know what’s morally right but you don’t do it, because you’re overcome by your passions.”

The other students nodded. They were all inheritors of wounds caused by the incontinence of educated men; now they had an ally in Aristotle, who had given them a way to analyze the actions of their antagonists.

  1. Dana Gioia and Tyler Cowen interview. Gioia is a poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and he has some great ideas about why the humanities—and poetry—are for everyone. He makes a distinction between pop culture and high culture that I rather reject. After all, much of what we consider high culture today—Homer, Russian ballet, Verdi’s operas, Shakespeare’s plays—were originally created for the masses to enjoy and appreciate. What’s stopping more of us from enjoying them today? I did, however, very much enjoy this interview, and this line in particular:

    The whole notion seems to me of art is of conservation, of looking at all the achievements of the past and figuring out what it is we save and what it is that we need to add to move forward.

  2. Foundation Chief Andrew Delbanco Wants All Students to Wrestle With Great Books. This essay features the work of Andrew Delbanco, a professor at Columbia who cares deeply about great books and great ideas. He heads a foundation that is funding an new model of teaching the humanities for first year undergraduates, which was first piloted at Purdue University (just about an hour away from my home here in Indianapolis). From the article, related to leisure:

If 2020 has taught us anything, he says, it’s that “we need to be able to have a reflective, deliberative conversation about who we want to be.”

Thank you for spending a bit of time here, and being part of the Civic Renaissance community!

So very grateful that you are here.