Classical Academic Press (of which I am a part) has launched a new online academy called Schole Academy. Naturally, some want to know what schole means, and sense it has something to do with school. Well it does and it doesn’t, it turns out. Here is the first essay of three on the recovery of schole in education.
My friend and colleague Andrew Kern (of the Circe Institute) once hosted a conference with the theme “A Contemplation of Rest.” This was several years ago, but Andrew deserves credit for raising the banner of a problem we all know something about: Modern education is an education in anxiety. Modern administrators, teachers, parents and students are frenzied and frenetic. Students rush to classes (at the sound of bells), often eight classes a day, then run to practices, music lessons and other activities. Then a night of homework when they try to manage assignments for their eight classes for which they receive numerical assessments, often on a weekly basis. Most students by junior high fall into the all too familiar cram-pass-forget cycle of “learning” that has afflicted almost all of us during our own education. We have all taken courses, the content of which faded into oblivion just a few months (or weeks) after we completed them. Some of us can barely recall if we even took a course in say, American history or British literature.
Well the good news is that for about thirty years there has been a steady push against this kind of frenetic, ephemeral education and a curious inquiry into the kind of education that preceded this unsettling schooling that dominates America. What came before it was the so-called classical model, itself multi-faceted but still a coherent, integrated approach to education that while rigorous, was slower and more contemplative. The classical tradition of education was (and is) many things woven together: a curriculum (including the seven liberal arts), a community (yes it does take a village) and a pedagogy (from chanting in younger grades to Socratic discussion in older ones). It is a large tradition and I can heartily recommend that readers consult the new book by Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education.
However, an important part of the tradition is contemplation itself. It would not have been conceivable to our forbears to consider a daily schedule of eight different classes, nor even the prospect of choosing a “major” field of study until the liberal arts were mastered. There were no majors in college until about the mid-1800s. Education in the classical tradition was rigorous, but it was slower, and focused on fewer arts at a time to ensure mastery and permanent learning. There was no “gaming the system” or the test; students were taught by masters who got to decide when a student was ready to proceed to further study. Teachers were expected to be masters who could be trusted to teach (because they were masters)—not functionaries of a system that forces all teachers to use the same techniques at the same time and verify their compliance by machine-readable multiple choice instruments.
Contemplation—do we even know what it is? And once we recover an intellectual grasp of it, do we know how to engage in it? Can we even slow down enough to read a long poem without getting distracted and fidgety? Have we become trained and habituated to constantly move, shift and flux—in body and mind?
The Greek word for leisure is schole (skoh-LAY). It does not mean leisure in the American sense of relaxing on a vacation at the beach. It means rather “restful learning” that comes from discussion, conversation and reflection among good friends. For the Greeks, this was the noble thing—one of the highest activities of human existence. The Greeks had another word for that kind of work that we all must do to earn our bread: ascholia. Ascholia means that necessary activity that keeps you from schole. Now wage-earning is a fine and noble thing in its own right, properly conceived. But do you see that schole is a higher thing still? Until we do, we won’t have it because we won’t want it. The classical tradition esteemed it and sought and so should we.
I close with an irony. Yes, we do derive our word “school” from schole. Schole moved into the Latin as schola (with some change of meaning) and then into German as schule and English as “school.” By the time we get to English, the restful connotation of schole has vanished. We can hope, however, that the renewal of classical education will put the schole back into school.