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Ask any political commentator about the economic problems facing the nation, and chances are they’ll talk about employment.

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Lots of people still are out of work, lots more can only find part-time jobs, and the soft labor market is preventing wages from rising. Ask what to do about it, and you’ll get many different answers. Offer more job training. Repeal Obamacare. Fund road and bridge projects that create construction jobs. Here’s one you won’t hear: Teach philosophy and art appreciation, so that people whose working hours are cut can use the time to cultivate their human potential. A hundred years ago, though, that was something that looked to a lot of people like a viable solution to falling employment.

Back in the early decades of the 20th century, industrialization and the work of labor unions pushed working hours down fast. By the 1930s, we’d gone from the 12-hour days and six-day weeks common in 19th-century factories to an average 35-hour workweek.

As the number of hours people worked declined, a flurry of essays and books by academics and educators took on the problem of “education for leisure.” Public schools, they argued, must provide students with the mental skills and cultural knowledge to make the most of their growing hours off the clock.

Success could make every man and woman like a citizen of ancient Greece, honing bodies and minds with sport, philosophy, and art, while machines took on the slaves’ role.

And then, with the end of the Depression, the dream faded. The rapid decline in standard working hours came to a halt, and the notion that schools should train students for play as much as for work fell out of vogue. By the 2010s, the most significant educational initiative in the country, the Common Core standards, could introduce itself with a three-minute video that focuses entirely on preparing workers for the global economy, with no mention of education for citizenship, personal intellectual growth, or any other purpose.

One of the earliest mentions of the phrase “education and leisure” appears in 1912 in the title of Chairman Frank Gaylord Hubbard’s address to the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association of America. In terms that might horrify the developer of a modern curriculum, Hubbard rejects the notion that schools ought to focus mostly on preparing students for the world of work. “Would it not be well for us sometimes to turn from the glories of material achievement and contemplate the burdensome nightmare of labor with which the modern world is obsessed, the worthlessness, the evil, the futility of much of it, the price that is paid for it in human life and happiness?” Hubbard asks his audience. “…this desire for leisure is a worthy and noble desire; in it is involved the striving for higher things, the longing for fuller and richer experience, the rising to higher levels of living.”

Nine years later, in the English Journal Althea A. Payne encourages teachers to educate their pupils for a life with more leisure, specifically by engaging them in reading good books for pleasure. She also calculates the glut of free time left by a 42-hour week, sounding a rather alarmed note: “What will the wage-earner do with those fifty-two hours, plus Sundays and holidays?” she asks

These men have no resources within themselves; few healthy interests outside their work… it is our duty as educators to equip the boys and girls in our care with interests and ideals that shall urge them to use this leisure profitably. It is our problem to aid them in cultivating tastes for innocent pleasures, to help them establish responses to the nobler forms of enjoyment, so that development and strength may result from their recreation and not waste and possibly crime.


Interest in the subject of education for leisure grew over the next decade. Writers contrasted fearful visions of idle hands doing the devil’s work with utopian dreams for humanity’s potential, and called for teachers to tip the balance in the right direction. One striking element of educators’ thinking in this era is their confidence that the work week would continue to shrink, for good or ill. Then again, people living in the early 1900s had every reason to be confident, says University of Iowa historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt. “For 100 years working hours were cut virtually in half between 1820 and 1920, 1930,” he says. “No one thought it would end.”

Hunnicutt, the author of three books about work and leisure, says that in those years labor unions pushed not just for better pay, but for shorter hours and more time for leisure. In 1912, striking textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts demanded “bread and roses”—not just the material necessities of life, but the chance to enjoy living. In 1928, one of history’s most famous economists, John Maynard Keynes, wrote the essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (pdf),” predicting that in 100 years people would barely need to work at all.

In fact, the growing public school system of the early 20th century, in itself, represented a shift from work to leisure in the American economy.

William J. Reese, a historian of education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says that before this era, most children wouldn’t have spent many years in school simply because their families needed them to work. But by the early 1900s, the population was shifting away from farms, where child labor had always been crucial. Meanwhile, in the cities, Reese says, rising immigration provided a bigger pool of adult labor, reducing the employment of teenagers. New technology, including the telephone, also eliminated unskilled jobs like “messenger boy.” These changes contributed to rapid growth in high schools, which had enrolled only 6 percent of the eligible population in 1890. “Most jobs—particularly after the Great Depression—for teenagers, become part-time work,” Reese says.

Fourteen-year-olds of the 1920s and 1930s weren’t just preparing for a life with less work—they were already living it. In 1934, education scholar G.O. Mudge wrote that President Roosevelt’s plans for recovery from the Depression “imply a large reduction in the working hours of industry and the complete removal of child labor,” that unions were demanding a 30-hour work week, and that economists “see the material and cultural needs of the world met by a work week of four days of four hours each.” Mudge calls for education to unlock the “treasure” of leisure:

That individuals shall be well-adjusted socially presupposes education, training, quite as much as that they shall be well-adjusted economically. To live socially efficient lives demands a keener sense of intelligence than is required for the mere providing of a livelihood… Education for leisure thus occupies no special niche of its own; it is only a newer slant on the processes of the educational procedure.

To a reader from the 21st century, particularly the sort of professional who finds work interesting and a source of pride and self-image, the concept of cultivating leisure sounds funny. For us, the word “leisure” may evoke a couch and a TV show we’d rather not admit to watching. And in that context, the idea of teaching people how to use their leisure time might sound more than a bit patronizing.

In his 1912 address to academics of his own time, Hubbard puts a different spin on this. “…many of us, I am sure, chose our profession, not primarily because we wished to teach, but because teaching would secure for us leisure to study and investigate,” he says. Leisure, by this account, isn’t simply free time, but freedom to do interesting things, whether or not they pay. In this account, education is for helping to figure out what those things are.


That’s an old idea. The word “school” actually comes from the Greek word for leisure, skholē, suggesting a place away from material concerns where men could talk philosophy and develop themselves.

For centuries, formal education was for the young people who would grow up not to work for a paycheck, but to shape societies and to appreciate the best things their cultures had to offer.

“Education, particularly beyond the third grade, was seen to be a privilege more of the elite,” says Judy Whipps, professor of liberal studies and philosophy at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. As working-class children moved from farms and factory floors to classrooms, what they found was not the kind of education elites might expect for their children. Whipps says the fast-expanding public schools of the time were generally pretty awful, taught by political appointees with no special training and based on rote memorization. The point was less developing the mind than learning obedience to authority and attention to the clock.

If public schools were to take on a new mission, it wasn’t clear what it would be. Should education prepare students for specific roles in the working world? At the start of the 20th century, Hubbard had heard calls for schools to do just that. “During the last twenty-five years the American educational world has been deafened with the clamor arising from the callings interested in the material side of life,” he writes. “‘Greater efficiency’ is the cry, and all have looked to the instruments of public education to remedy the defect, to furnish forthwith to each calling men well trained and especially trained for all departments of its work.”

In those same years, progressive education reformers like Jane Addams and John Dewey had a very different vision for the role of schools, Whipps said. They saw the purpose of education as “enriching one’s life”—in the workplace, but also everywhere else—and becoming part of a democratic society. If work declined in importance, perhaps everyone could have access to the satisfactions previously known only to the most privileged.

The progressive educational movement still influences how school is taught today. But when it comes to why schools teach, the vocational side has clearly won the day. Ask nearly any modern American what makes a good public school, and you’ll almost certainly hear that it educates a future workforce, not that it helps children grow up to live deeper intellectual lives.

Looking back at the advocates of education for leisure, our first impulse might be to shake our heads at how much they got wrong. Working hours, of course, did not continue their rapid decline. But Hunnicutt, the leisure historian, says it isn’t that advocates of education for leisure made foolish predictions—it’s that, around the time of the New Deal, there was a massive shift in the political and social understanding of work and leisure. Facing unsustainable levels of unemployment, he says, Roosevelt had to choose between reducing standard working hours to allow more people to share the same pool of work, and pumping more jobs into the economy. “He decides that the federal government, and government in general, has to take responsibility for creating new work, replacing work eliminated by capitalism,” Hunnicut said. “Full-time full employment becomes the centerpiece of American politics: jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Meanwhile, the culture changed too. With the rise of the advertising industry, Americans increasingly saw leisure as synonymous with frivolity, centered on buying more stuff. Historian Robert Goldman argues in a 1983–84 issue of Social Text that a new focus on individual leisure starting in the 1920s was a way to create markets for more goods.

Private life and leisure satisfactions were made to appear as if they were one and the same,” he writes. “Advertisements for Victrola phonographs suggested that with their products, ‘You are at the opera in your home… the artist will sing it or play it a thousand times, if you wish, for your personal enjoyment… Don’t deny yourself this endless pleasure.’ Another conspicuous development was the declining proportion of leisure time devoted to conversation. The advent of the mass-circulation magazine and the radio seriously undermined the notion of leisure as a time for conversation.

Last year, Hunnicutt wrote a piece for Politico about the potential for Obamacare to free some people from the necessity of working full-time, and he said he was stunned by the response. “For three or four months, I got hate mail, hair-raising voice messages telling me I’m a communist because I dared even talk about the concept of work reduction,” he said. “We have turned to work as an ideology, as a belief,” Hunnicutt says. “Work becomes an end in itself.”

Still, there are some signs that the potential for more leisure remains. The publication earlier this year of The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee spurred conversations about the notion that computers and robots could replace not just simple labor but a large swath of professional and semi-skilled jobs.

Meanwhile, after rising for more than three decades, the percentage of the American population either working or looking for work has been falling since around 2000. The people who’ve left the labor force aren’t necessarily happy about it—many are living stressful, difficult lives on far too little money. But, with technology bringing us the things we need and want with less and less labor required, the material needs of non-workers is a problem of distribution, not production.

Reflecting on the issue in a column titled “A World Without Work” last year, conservative commentator Ross Douthat echoed the same concerns about what working-class people will do with their free time that Althea A. Payne expressed back in 1923. The big issue, Douthat argues, is not lost economic productivity but the personal dignity of displaced workers. “Even a grinding job tends to be an important source of social capital, providing everyday structure for people who live alone, a place to meet friends and kindle romances for people who lack other forms of community, a path away from crime and prison for young men, an example to children and a source of self-respect for parents,” he writes.

The notion that something besides work—something less grinding—might provide those things, and that education might play a role in helping us understand how, is now, nearly a century after Payne wrote, virtually unthinkable.



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PMLA, Vol. 27, Appendix. Proceedings of the Thirtieth Annual Meeting of the Modern Language Association of America, and of the Eighteenth Annual Meeting of the Central Division of the Association, 1912 (1912), pp. lxxi-xc
Modern Language Association
The English Journal, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Apr., 1921), pp. 208-216
National Council of Teachers of English
The High School Journal, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Feb., 1934), pp. 47-53
University of North Carolina Press
Social Text, No. 8 (Winter, 1983-1984), pp. 84-103
Duke University Press