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The Vanity of Productivity

Jens Schott Knudsen

Liz Horst - Humane Pursuits - published on 11/24/13


learning an instrument increases intelligence; and reading books improves neural connections in the brain; and playing video games promotes creativity; and watching TV negatively affects all of the above.

But my real purpose in teaching students to play the violin is not to make them smarter. It’s not even to help them become skilled in violin performance. I want them to love playing and listening to beautiful music. It is a bonus if they grow smarter in the process.

We tend to see everything backwards. You don’t read Homer to become smart; you become smart so that you can enjoy Homer. Intelligence is not a concrete good on its own. It is merely the capacity to understand, and perhaps to enjoy.

It may be possible to live in the prosperous west and still have a right relationship to the world, in which you see things as ends first of all, rather than means. But this healthy relationship will probably come at the expense of other kinds of productivity.

You might say that there are only three good reasons for doing anything:

1) To bring good to somebody else (e.g. donating, serving, teaching, performing music)

2) To enjoy something that is good to do or experience, with no reference to future goals (discerning which things are good is harder than discerning which things are useful; but at least it is the right question)

3) To work toward gaining the tools that help you enjoy something good (e.g. earning money, practicing an instrument, studying math, refraining from sweets so that you can enjoy the benefits of good health)

Of course, there must be goals for the future, and sometimes painful progress toward those goals. Finding and appreciating good things might take time, work, and training. You need certain sets of skills in order to understand and enjoy literature, art, math, sports, and everything else school-age children have to learn.

When the work is hard, learners can find motivation in incentives such as grades, competition, praise, and feelings of accomplishment. But these enticements are merely measures of progress towards a different goal. If the incentive becomes the objective–if students love only winning and that sense of accomplishment–they live impoverished lives. They end up in love with themselves, or with nothing at all.

I happened upon a beautiful answer to the tormenting question, “What is good for a person to do all the days of his life?” in the book of Ecclesiastes. Some have found this book depressing, but I believe it is meant to lift and free the weary, striving soul. According to the preacher of Ecclesiastes,

"There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. . . . Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun." (2:24, 9:7-9, ESV)

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