In Praise of Loafing: Talking Life Worth Living in Switzerland

May 22, 2015

Woman Reading at Colby College

Last week I was at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, meeting with Prof. Guido Vergauwen, Prof. Barbara  Hallensleben, and Dr. Walter Dürr (who directs the Studienzentrum für Glaube und Gesellschaft [The Study Center for Faith & Society]). The topic of our conversation: “Life worth living” and the state of university education. 

The conversation was at once familiar and yet quite distinct.

We met with a group of about 20 theology students who had read Miroslav Volf’s essay, “Life Worth Living: The Christian Faith and the Crisis of the Humanities” and we asked them whether the essay accurately described their experience. Was their education indeed, failing to connect with the big questions of their lives?

The answers were familiar. Students pointed to the problem of specialization of faculty research that makes it impossible to ask or answer the big questions. Often, they said, what they received from class was more deconstruction than reconstruction; disintegrating critique, they pointed out, is so much easier than positive integration. This means that the work of faculty—even of theology faculty—can tend to do more brush-clearing than construction. The resulting vacuum of meaning when it comes to the big questions of life is all too easily filled by the instrumental logic of the market that says that what life is for—and therefore what education is for—is wealth production.

Prof. Vergauwen, the Domincan former director of the University, insisted that what was needed was a return to the German ideal of Bildung. I’ll quickly gloss that term as “education,” but Vergauwen insisted that there is no English word for this rich concept. Bildung, he said, captures so much more than information transfer—and certainly much more than mere vocational training (or Ausbildung). Rather, Bildung is about the formation of the whole person. This, he said, is the type of “education” that can really address the big questions of life and muster enough force to hold back the invading market logic that otherwise threatens to cut the conversation short. 

As we unpacked this concept of Bildung, it became clear that one thing this sort of education requires is a particular sort of freedom—not merely an “intellectual freedom,” but also leisure, a freedom from the incessant demands of the market’s instrumental logic. In the face of regular demands to be productive, to give account of the utility of one’s work and studies, Prof. Vergauwen insisted that students “Dare to be useless in what you do.” This, he said, was fundamental to creating the possibility of Bildung. The admonition was striking: “dare to be useless.”

And yet the basic impulse is quite familiar. Andrew Delbanco, in his book College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, says something at least as daring. College, Delbanco argues, should be a place that makes possible and in fact celebrates loafing. Delbanco cites Walt Whitman to make his case: “I loaf and invite my soul,” says Whitman in Song of Myself, “I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” Loafing extends a particular invitation to the soul—an invitation that perhaps cannot be extended otherwise. 

Both Vergauwen and Delbanco ultimately connect “uselessness” and “loafing” respectively to what Cardinal Newman, standing in a rich Catholic tradition, calls “contemplation.” Certainly this is a value we can get behind. But Vergauwen and Delbanco rightly insist that, whereas perhaps once upon a time one could simply celebrate and encourage contemplation, these days one has first to fight back the utility talk that would choke it before it took its first breath. To make room for contemplation, the vita contemplativa, we must first answer the market’s inevitable critique thereof: contemplation is useless; it amounts merely to loafing. So we ought to do what any marginalized group does in answering the dominant voice of the day: let’s champion the critique, celebrate the insult. Let us stand and speak in praise of loafing.

Matt Croasmun is the Director of Research and Publication at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture and Lecturer of Theology and Humanities at Yale University.

Lead image: Girl in the Hammock, Winslow Homer, 1873