The Nature of College by James Farrell


If somebody asked Dr. America to name his deepest values, convenience wouldn’t even be on the list.  It’s not one of his expressed values at all.  But it is an operative value that runs deeper than most of the values he does avow.  In fact, convenience is a core American value, and one of our most important environmental values as well.  According to the dictionary, a convenience is something that increases comfort or decreases work.  It’s also something that saves time at work or elsewhere.  When Dr. and Mrs. America stop at “convenience stores,” we buy gas for the car that’s a convenience and we buy foods that are processed and packaged for quick and convenient consumption.

The value of convenience is related to two other American values, busyness and speed.  Americans are religious about busyness because, as we know, “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”  American business worships busyness too, and the recent trend of corporate downsizing means that fewer people are busily doing more work at the office.  To cope with the long-hour jobs imposed by our employers, we need to shorten hours elsewhere—and that’s what convenience is for.  Sadly, however, we’re not really saved by the time we save.

Speed is how we do more things in less time, even if the quality of our experience suffers.  Driven by the time pressures of our employers—or of advertisers promising to relieve our stress—we speed, for example, to America’s many fast-food franchises.  When we drive through the fast-food outlet—or even when we eat in—the fastness of the food is the mark of its convenience, but not its quality.  In most cases, we sacrifice the quality of cuisine to the pressures of time.  Instead of eating good food in good company, we conveniently consume our calories quickly.  In fact, researchers find that 19 percent of American meals are conveniently eaten in the car.

Convenience is a way of saving time by spending money, and we do it all the time.  It’s a way of getting someone else to do our work for us.  Often, that someone else is a multinational corporation with international supply lines maintained by fossil fuels.  When we choose convenience, therefore, we generally elect the social (and environmental) values of corporate America.  We opt for industrial agriculture (with its immense environmental impacts, including erosion of the topsoil that supports life on earth).  We opt for time-saving devices cheaply made in China (with environmental impacts all along the supply chain).  We opt for cars instead of time-consuming public transit. Without intending to, we generally opt to use more natural resources minimize our time.  Saving time, therefore, does little to save the planet, and all of our conveniences add up to one big “inconvenient truth.”

As a substitute for convenience as a value, Americans might consider “timeliness.”  Instead of saving time, we might try to savor it.  Timeliness would mean spending more time on more important things, and less time on less important things.  It would mean having time for things that are now inconvenient—like family time, or slow food with friends, or time in nature, or time for the arts and culture, or even time to do a job right.  Timeliness would help us to calculate the cost of our things in terms of time, as Thoreau did.  “The cost of a thing,” he calculated, “is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”  If we included the long run in our calculations of convenience, timeliness could keep us connected to future time too.  In a culture of timeliness, we would not consider ourselves “on time” unless we were making time for both present and future generations.  In farming, for example, we wouldn’t be on time unless we were making topsoil as fast as we use it.  Timeliness is not the same as time management, because time management represents the individualization of responsibility, only asking us to save time within the parameters of corporate culture.  Real timeliness would require a politics of time, in which Americans organized to set limits on the time that could be extracted from us at work.  We’ve done this before.  Organized in unions, American workers in the early 20th century organized politically for the 8-hour day that gave Americans leisure to actually enjoy their productivity and prosperity.

Now, in the economic crisis of the early 20th century, many of us worry less about the time we spend at work, and more about whether there will be work for us at all.  But, as Rahm Emanuel says, a crisis should never go to waste.  It’s an opportunity for us to aim not just for economic recovery, but for the recovery of work that’s convenient for the whole creation and for the time that would make life really worth living.