Leisure is not the cessation of work, but work of another kind, work restored to its human meaning, as a celebration and a festival.


–Roger Scruton

We Americans have no trouble being busy.  American educators are about the busiest people I know.  Classical school administrators are usually frenetic.  Teachers work so hard for nine months that they truly do need a summer’s rest.  How do classical students fare?  Well, they need those three months of summer too.

I was interviewing Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio recently, and asked him what he would hope to see if he observed a classical Christian school.  I was braced by one of his responses: he would hope to see a rhythm of fasting and feasting.  Fasting and feasting sounds strange to 21st century American ears, though it ought not sound so strange to American Christians trying to learn from the classical tradition.  The church has practiced fasting and feasting for centuries.  For various reasons, many, perhaps most, American Christians have forgotten these practices—and so we are not likely to quickly bring them to our schools.

Ken’s comments got me thinking again about our need to re-examine and understand leisure, contemplation and rest as vital aspects of a classical education.  Contemplation, after all, is a key component of the classical tradition of education.  Do our students have appropriate time to reflect on what they read and to contemplate the great ideas of the Great Conversation?  Or do they fly from book to book, class to class and grade to grade?  Ah, we are Americans and we are busy seeking ways to keep the cake and eat it too.  We want depth and breadth.  We want music, sports, art, drama, debate, trips, labs, language, science, literature, logic, rhetoric, theology, history and a dozen electives.  It is not unusual for a student to be tracking 7-8 classes plus several extra-curricular activities.  Parents need sophisticated planning software just to manage transportation of students from one place to another. Parents too are often frenetic.

The things we are busy about deserve scrutiny.  Our history is one of sustained, hard work, forging a country out of wilderness, building cities, moving west and building more cities.  We are widely known for our “can do” spirit and seemingly endless entrepreneurial energy.  Classical leaders and educators possess this strength.  What we don’t do well is rest.

In 1948 the German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote a small book (about 130 pages) entitled Leisure the Basis for Culture.  Classical educators need this book.  Pieper does more than tell us we need to slow down and take a breather.  Rather, he helps recover the long-lost meaning of the word leisure.  In a society that greatly values “work for the sake of work” leisure has come to mean time free from the obligations of work, time that most Americans often fill with amusements and play.  This is not the leisure of long ago.

Pieper points out that the Greeks and Romans did not even have specific words for “work” as a positive concept.  The Greeks referred to “work” as ascholia which means “not at leisure.”  The Greek word for leisure is schole, from which we derive our word “school.” Astonishingly, the Greek word for institutions of learning means “leisure.”  The Romans’ word for leisure is otium and their word for work is neg-otium (not at leisure), from which we get our word “negotiate.”  Aristotle writes “we are not at leisure (ascholia) in order to be at leisure (schole).   Pieper also notes that engaging in the reflection of truth and virtue (the vita contemplavita) is the “highest fulfillment or what it means to be human” and thus of profound importance.

Now this is worth some…reflection.  The classical tradition of education regarded a “school” as a place of schole.  The Romans imported schole into Latin as schola, from which we get our word “school.”  Just what about our schools is schole?  Would our students describe our schools, among other things, as a place of leisure?  This would not mean of course, that our schools would be places of mere relaxation, but places of reflection, conversation, celebration and feasting.  Sound like your school?

What the Greeks and the Romans discerned as fitting for man is also confirmed by biblical teaching.  When God rested after six days of creation, he was not tired.  He celebrated and blessed his creation (Gen. 2:3).  The Sabbath rest and the regular feasts were not given so that God’s people would do nothing, though it did mean ceasing from typical daily labor.  Rather it was meant as a time for a particular kind of robust activity—feasting, celebration and blessing. The Sabbath rest is not the mere cessation of labor, but the orientation of the human to his highest end—the “work” of leisure, the “work” of praising, serving, feasting and blessing.

When C. S. Lewis studied as an adolescent with the retired Scottish schoolmaster (whom Lewis called “the Great Knock” in Surprised by Joy) he studied two subjects for three years—Latin and Greek.  But wait–through his study of Latin and Greek he studied history, literature, philosophy, poetry, grammar.  And he learned dialectic, because the Great Knock argued with him about everything.   Lewis goes on to criticize modern education for denying students in secondary schools the hope of ever mastering anything—we cover too many subjects all at the same time to ever hope of mastering a single one.  Lewis regards this as costly sacrifice, because he thinks that mastery of one subject creates a kind of confidence that leads students to go to master the next subject, now believing (and knowing) that mastery is possible.

This all flies in the face of our typical understanding of a broad-based liberal education—or does it?  Dorothy Sayers suggests that at the age of 16 a classically-educated student should be ready to specialize in a subject he or she has grown to love and prefer.  I think we may be caught in a false dilemma of thinking we must choose between two extremes of either a highly specialized education (study only Latin and Greek!) or studying eight subjects every semester for about ten years.  As we re-imagine what form classical education should take in 21st century America, I think we would do well to ask ourselves in what ways we may have simply taken some aspects of the contemporary progressive model (eight subjects every semester plus extra-curriculars) into our schools without sufficient scrutiny.  The medieval maxim of non multa, sed multum (not many but much) should be reconsidered for modern application to our schools.  If we do this while also recovering leisure, perhaps we will create schools of schole that offer 21st century America something it sorely needs.

In what ways does your school pursue leisure?  I would love to hear.  Here are some preliminary ideas:

  • Have students read fewer books in literature courses to include in-depth discussion and reflection upon them.
  • Consider block scheduling: This enables classes to meet longer and facilitates discussion
  • Consider a trimester schedule with only four courses: This allows students to study fewer courses at a time, more intensively, but over three semesters instead of two.
  • Incorporate conversation about ideas into the school at large: Socratic circles for student discussion worked into classes; Socratic circles in which staff discuss ideas in front of students; Socratic circles involving parents, students and staff at various times and events in or out of school.
  • Feasts and celebrations that integrate with the church calendar and incorporate skills and themes from student learning.

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