Leisure studies: an academic field based on a utopian mistake?

With most academic fields, we know what they are about. Political science teaches about political systems and their workings; philosophy about how people have thought on questions such as ethics; literature courses have students read and contemplate worthwhile books.

But what is “leisure studies” about? Such courses are found at a number of colleges and universities.

A recent Chronicle Review article, The Labors of Leisure, sheds some light on this strange-sounding, perhaps oxymoronic field. And it leads me to conclude that it is based on a misunderstanding about what the future holds.

The Chronicle Review article was prompted by a skirmish over the impact of Obamacare early this year. As evidence emerged that Obamacare was pushing employers to cut back on full-time employment, so that many workers would work less than 30 hours per week, conservatives took that as proof that the law was detrimental.

But University of Iowa professor Benjamin Hunnicutt thought otherwise, and wrote an article on Politico, “Why Do Republicans Want Us to Work All the Time?” He contended that less time at work is something to celebrate.

Conservative hosts like Bill O’Reilly fired back that Hunnicutt’s professorship of “leisure studies” was proof enough that he ought to be ignored. The notion that leisure was a subject for academic study was ridiculed.

Nathan Schneider, author of the Chronicle Review article, is very sympathetic to Hunnicutt and in the piece he reveals much about the genesis of “leisure studies.” “Fifty or sixty years ago,” he writes, “many sociologists saw leisure as an urgent challenge for their field; with more free time surely to come, how would people use it? Leisure studies departments were one result.”

It wasn’t only sociologists who expected an abundance of leisure time. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith argued in 1958 that America had “solved” the production problem and needed only to properly distribute the wealth.  Many liberal academics believed that when the economy was freed from old-fashioned capitalism and placed under the control of well-meaning government officials, long work days would no longer be necessary and should even be legislated out of existence.

Hunnicutt was among them. A graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was looking for something to write about. “The subject of leisure was one among many on a list of possible topics in a seminar with George Mowry, a scholar of Progressivism,” Schneider writes. “Leisure was something (Hunnicutt’s) southern upbringing had taught him about, but he hadn’t realized that it was something he could study.”

Hunnicutt wrote his dissertation on leisure but wondered where it could lead. Then he heard about “a job opening at the University of Iowa in recreation education, a department soon to be renamed leisure studies. He could teach the history of free time to students who would spend their lives promoting it.”

That was a great break for Hunnicutt , and his students apparently enjoy his teaching. We read that his course on “the experience economy” (a post-industrial, post-service economy in which companies will promote “experiences”) is popular. But is there any reason to believe that people should have more leisure time, or that they would if it weren’t for hidebound conservatives who get in the way of our liberation from drudgery? Schneider seems to think so. ”Today the very idea of leisure sounds absurd to the ears of such cultural bellwethers as O’Reilly and Hannity, and a personal insult to hardworking politicians like (Paul) Ryan.”

Throughout the adulatory article, we hear hymns to leisure, such as that Hunnicutt’s book, Free Time: A Forgotten American Dream, chronicles the idea that “technology and social progress would lead to the gradual reduction of working hours, leaving time for worthier pursuits.”

It isn’t a “forgotten dream” at all, however.  Americans have seen a steady reduction in working time owing to investment in labor-saving devices. That is one of the great benefits of free market capitalism. In terms of making work easier and shorter, the free market compares very favorably with planned, socialistic economies.

As far back as Karl Marx, who planted many utopian seeds, leftists have assumed that work is somehow an unpleasant feature of capitalism. Marx thought that socialism would produce such abundance that people would no longer have to specialize and work hard.

That is simply a pipe dream. Goods and services only appear when individuals work to produce them. The speculations of those sociologists and economists long ago were unfounded. There has never been any “urgent challenge” regarding leisure—either to mandate more of it or to study how people choose to use it.

Working, in short, isn’t a Republican obsession. It’s a natural consequence of the human condition. The complaint that many people have against the way Obamacare compels them to accept fewer hours of work (and accordingly lower pay) is that they would prefer to make a different trade-off. While a tenured university professor might not understand their preference for more work compared with “worthier pursuits,” it’s not his decision to make.

Leisure is not a “dream” that universities need to “model.” It is a choice people can make among all the uses of their time. Some poor people prefer to allocate more time to leisure while some rich people choose to be workaholics. People have different values.

It simply isn’t true, as another leisure studies professor, Janet Gornick of CUNY says, “The idea of reducing your paid work hours is viewed as totally un-American.” Only in American universities—fulsomely supported through people’s work—could such an erroneous notion become the grounds for a field of study.