3 Timely Pieces for Independence Day – Finding Meaning in Work, Life, and Freedom

July 3, 2012

What is the purpose of America? What kind of society are we creating? Where will we go from here?

These are all excellent questions for reflection as The United States prepares to celebrate Independence Day, and a few thinkers gave us significant food for thought on these very topics this week:

  • Writer Tim Kreider struck a cord with many Americans with The Busy Trap. It quickly launched to the top of the NY Times most-emailed list. He’s convinced that the increasingly common rejoinder of being “too busy” is often self-imposed and even self-delusional:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day… More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

Kreider’s piece is compelling and it reads well. I think he’s concerned with the right malaise when he writes of busyness as a hedge against emptiness. But I was left with the sense that he hadn’t seriously engaged the questions of how we are related to one another (Do we have some sort of obligation transcending our individual experiences of happiness?) and what our individual purposes are (Aside from working less, should we be concerned with identifying the work or personal pursuit that clearly engages us?). Kreider is reflecting on the ideal human experience, so I think he needs to take up other-affiliation and purpose – at the very least. Fortunately,

  • Robert and Edward Skidelsky, Professors of Political Philosophy and Political Economy, contributed a thought-provoking and beautiful essay to The Chronicle of Higher Education, In Praise of Leisure. The Skidelsky brothers look at our society and ask, what is all this wealth for? They would like to see less toil (work done for pay because it must be) and more time for people to pursue possibilities, thoughtfully:

Let us state firmly that we are not in favor of idleness. What we wish to see more of is leisure, a category that, properly understood, is so far from coinciding with idleness that it approaches its polar opposite. Leisure, in the true, now almost forgotten sense of the word, is activity without extrinsic end, “purposiveness without purpose,” as Kant put it. The sculptor engrossed in cutting marble, the teacher intent on imparting a difficult idea, the musician struggling with a score, a scientist exploring the mysteries of space and time—such people have no other aim than to do well what they are doing. They may receive an income for their efforts, but that income is not what motivates them. They are engaged in leisure, not toil.

  • Finally, and I think most beautifully, On Being featured an hour-long conversation with Philosophy Professor Jacob Needleman, The Inward Work of American Democracy. Needleman investigated the relationship between the Founders’ spirituality, their commitment to the idea of democracy, and their sense of virtue and responsibility. He believes “the great purpose of America is to provide a place in which people can become fully human.” It is an extraordinary and unique reflection on several American thinkers and their relationship to purpose, belief, and The Republic. He considers writings and history spanning George Washington, Frederick Douglas, Walt Whitman, and much more. Near the conclusion he is asked about the need for America in the world today. His reply:  “America is the guardian of the search for conscience … even if the presidents and the congress people don’t know about it. It’s needed in the world.” These quotations are provocative alone. I urge you to listen to the whole interview.

Between the fireworks, grilled food, lagers, and sparklers, it’s certainly worth pausing to reflect on why we celebrate and what we celebrate.


These inter-relationships – between faith and democracy, belief and the search for freedom, personal pursuits and public life, and finally between finding meaning and space for philosophical discussion and consideration with others – are part of why I’ve organized this recent series on faith, values, and service-learning.

I’ve enjoyed many of the posts to date and I hope you have too. I’ll share additional contributions to the series later this month. After that, several guests will contribute to a new series on the research literature in global service-learning. How do we know what we know about this integration of education and community development practice?

Thanks for reading. Please share comments, questions, or concerns – or follow us on Twitter or by using the email sign-up on the right. Have a great July 4th, wherever you are.


This post was contributed by Eric Hartman. Hartman organizes this site, consults on global citizenship education and university-community partnership, and serves as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Global Studies at Providence College.

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