What is a good society? The question has taxed philosophers, politicians, preachers, and everyday people for centuries—and it even helped spark the creation of the United States. Founded as a rebuttal to the old, failed philosophies and practices of Europe, America held out the promise of a shining new order based on equality and freedom.
President and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson had firm ideas about the best way to shape that new nation. In 1784, writing in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson championed the cause of the agrarian society. In his view, independent farmers living the simple—and morally superior—rural life were ideal, virtuous citizens compared to the corruption found in cities and among financiers and industrialists.
“Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God…, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue,” he wrote. “While we have land to labor then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench.”
Jefferson couldn’t have pictured a 21st century in which yeoman farmers tending small lots have typically given way to super-sized agricultural operations, while most Americans toil in retail or manufacturing industries. Still, he would recognize age-old debates— such as a strong federal government versus states’ rights—that continue to be fiercely argued today. Even after more than 200 years, Americans still haven’t reached consensus over the best ways to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
The debate for an ideal society that provides the best outcomes for both individual citizens and an entire nation has wandered down different avenues of political, economic, and civic theory. Since 1948, the University of Iowa’s longest-running course, “The Good Society,” currently taught through the Leisure Studies Program, has helped students join the conversation.
"We’re never going to reach a utopian point where we can just freeze everything. The dynamism of society comes from trying to figure out these issues.”Tom Dean, adjunct assistant professor of English
Part of the course’s enduring appeal lies in the fact that it addresses a topic so timeless and yet so relevant to people’s lives, especially to undergraduates who are often trying to find or define their place in the world. Thomas Dean, 91PhD, an adjunct assistant professor of English who’s taught the course since 2000, notes: “Students come to the university partly for self-interest: for their individual advancement and careers. But they also think a lot about themselves not just as individuals but as part of society.”
Under Dean’s guidance, some 30 students from a variety of majors explore a broad range of historical, economic, political, artistic, philosophical, and scientific perspectives that have helped shape and define American culture. They soon discover that no easy, one-size-fits-all solution exists, and that definitions of “good” vary dramatically according to a person’s beliefs.
Still, as they work through an eclectic reading list that roams from 19th century thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville to 20th century economist Milton Friedman to current environmentalist Bill McKibben and Native American poet and essayist Linda Hogan, the students realize that certain key themes resurface over time.
In fact, Jefferson’s ideal agrarian society found new vitality in the early 20th century with the Country-Life Movement, which aimed to preserve and improve rural lifestyles in the face of increasing industrialization. In response to concerns about the poor quality of rural living conditions, health, and education, as well as the exodus of workers city, President Theodore Roosevelt established the 1908 Commission on Country Life Commission. Although limited in its effectiveness, the commission did introduce the national agricultural extension program, in which land-grant universities help farmers learn about and adopt technological improvements to improve their livelihoods.
Yet even today, public debate continues to rage about how farms should be managed and Americans’ food produced. The UI students read a variety of essays and books that offer opposing views, including author and activist Michael Pollan’s criticism of factory farming, biotechnology, and other modern, intensive agricultural practices and Missouri farmer Blake Hurst’s assertion that, “We have to farm ‘industrially’ to feed the world.” By using those “industrial” tools sensibly, Hurst argues, “we can…leave my grandchildren a prosperous and productive farm, while protecting the land, water, and air around us.”
As the ideological gulf between Pollan and Hurst illustrates, the authors featured on the UI course span the political spectrum. Still, many agree that a good society is one in which individual citizens play an active and meaningful role. Students consider the core concept of “social capital”—the civic, economic, and political benefits gained from people interacting as part of a community. In the 19th century, de Tocqueville admired Americans’ propensity to gather for discussions about politics, economics, and a host of other issues both great and small. In his view, such connections improved the transparency and effectiveness of American democracy, as well as the overall quality of life.
“Among the laws that rule human societies there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others,” he wrote. “If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve.”
Today, though, social commentators bemoan how modern living has broken down these valuable, traditional bonds. In his best-selling book, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, Robert Putnam noted the decrease since the 1960s in the number of Americans belonging to civic or social organizations like bowling leagues, which used to encourage relationships, dialogue, and understanding. Now, in Putnam’s view, Americans prefer to watch television or play computer games alone—becoming so disconnected and alienated from their neighbors and communities that they’re no longer good or effective citizens.
That perspective seems strange for members of a generation who grew up in a society where technology touches every aspect of daily life—from hobbies to careers to social interactions. Indeed, most of the class members freely admit their technological addiction. So, for each twice-weekly, 75-minute long session in the Van Allen Hall classroom, their professor puts theory to practice and creates a microcosm of a good society that would earn Putnam’s approval.
The first rule causes some angst: put away cell phones, turn off laptops, unplug from the wired world. Rather than interacting with others virtually and at a distance via Twitter, Facebook, or a text message, students do it face-to-face. Instead of seeking distraction and immediate gratification in an online world, they learn to engage with what is actually happening in their lives.
The experiment also illustrates Dean’s personal “golden rule” (the concept of treat others as you would wish to be treated), which could easily serve as a primer for a good society. Just as their professor pledges that he will give them his full attention, so students promise to listen to others’ ideas politely, not interrupt, and participate constructively during discussions. Such simple actions highlight important facets of a good society: collective responsibility and mutual respect.
Similarly, each session starts with a brief writing assignment in which students examine how that week’s topic applies to their lives or altered their perspective. More than just a way for Dean to check that students actually completed the readings, it’s a valuable opportunity for self-examination and reflection. Such practices encourage students to recognize when they’re on autopilot and instead make conscious decisions about how they live.
Introducing students to new ideas and encouraging them to pursue an examined life is a critical part of the UI’s mission. As Dean notes: “A university is an important force in creating a good society by educating people, developing new knowledge, providing service, and conducting research.”
By the end of the course, students realize that ideas and theories are always open to interpretation—and that society is always in flux. While theories or philosophies can and do vary greatly, the overriding human desire to improve conditions remains steadfast—to make the world a better place not just now but for the next generation.
“We’re never going to reach a utopian point where we can just freeze everything. The dynamism of society comes from trying to figure out these issues,” says Dean. “It’s like a high-wire act over Niagara Falls; every microsecond is spent working on the balance.”