“Let me begin with an objection, an objection of the kind which the scholastics called a Videtur quod non. Now of all times, in the post-war years, is not the time to talk about leisure. We are, after all, busy building our house. Our hands are full and there is work for all. And surely, until our task is done and our house rebuilt, the only thing that matters is to strain every nerve.”
So begins Josef Pieper’s classic work, Leisure the Basis of Culture, published in 1952. As we plan for the post-Covid-19 years, we too face the same objections. Enough of quarantine and forced idleness. Our country, economy and society must be rebuilt — and so we need to strain every nerve until the task is achieved and our post-industrial machine purrs with life once more.
Pieper acknowledged this argument but stuck to his guns, arguing that “one of the foundations of Western culture is leisure”. Drawing on Aristotle’s argument in the Nicomachean Ethics that “we are unleisurely in order to have leisure”, he also noted that Aristotle claimed in his Politics that “the first principle of all action is leisure” and that “leisure is better than occupation and is its end”.
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What is striking about these ideas from the Politics is that they appear in a chapter about education. Given the high value that Aristotle placed on the right ordering of education, this focus on leisure and its relationship with learning might surprise us. However, as Pieper wrote, the link is implicit in the etymology of the word: “for leisure in Greek is skole, and in Latin scola, the English ‘school.’ ‘School’ does not, properly speaking, mean school, but leisure.”
Factory learning is crushing our kids
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We live in a very different world from Aristotle. Our education system was forged in the industrial fires of the 19th century and so has largely accepted the ethos of total work that dominated that age. The image that best describes schools even today is the factory, complete with measurable outcomes, quality assurance, constant testing, and all the rest of it. With the factory as the dominant image, we can understand why the closure of schools has caused such angst. Since the production line has ground to a halt, children are no longer able to be productive.
No wonder that many parents feel frazzled. As they desperately struggle to hang onto their jobs or keep their businesses going, they also feel under pressure to ensure that their children remain productive. Nor has that anxiety been diminished by the sudden shift to remote learning. They may wonder what their children are up to on the computer all day. They may fear that, whatever they’re doing, they are surely falling behind.
The fundamental problem here is not the lockdown per se but the assumption that leisure is the enemy of education rather than the basis from which it proceeds. The truth of the matter is that effective learning begins when we escape from the industrial model, when we remember that there is more to education that interactive whiteboards, school bells, and public exams.
The school as factory is not the only image available to us. As a schoolteacher, I work to the bell: as a home educator, I work to a different conception of time, a rhythm that many families are now discovering under lockdown. What the Slow Movement did for food, we are trying to do for our children’s education. We don’t track school terms or mimic the school day. We give each task the time it needs. My eldest daughter writes stories every day but I don’t demand that she hand in a finished version every Monday morning.
Our approach to education stems from our appreciation of leisure, which, according to Josef Pieper, isn’t “simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation.” Or a lockdown, we might add. “Compared with the exclusive ideal of work as activity, leisure implies (in the first place) an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence… leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”
This positive understanding of leisure is hugely empowering. It suggests that children can still learn when they aren’t in school. It implies that education continues even when formal teaching is suspended. It helps us see that it is only when we are open to the world and the knowledge it contains that we can truly learn.
That has certainly been my experience as a schoolteacher and a home educator. The children who thrive in and out of school are the ones who know how to make good use of their leisure time, not those who fritter it away online or even those who spend hours and hours on their homework. The standout students are the ones who have open minds and who pursue knowledge for its own sake.
The lockdown has caused much pain, but it has also given us a golden opportunity to put joy, love and leisure back at the heart of education, as John Holt argued in How Children Learn:
“Little children love the world. That is why they are so good at learning about it. For it is love, not tricks and techniques of thought, that lies at the heart of all true learning.”
What our children need are not techniques but the time and space they have so unexpectedly been given by the mass closure of schools. The time and space to learn with their parents. The time and space to discover things for themselves. True leisure is the breeding ground in which healthy curiosity can grow.
While I was writing this article, one of my daughters bounced up to me with a poster she was designing about ‘Four Things to do during Lockdown.’ 1. Aim to learn something new before lockdown ends. 2. Help around the house. 3. Get outside. 4. Read or write something new. More importantly, she has taken the initiative to follow her own advice. She’s been researching Mesopotamia, baking cakes, working on her nature journal, and reading a lot. Oh yes, and she’s also been learning to unicycle. My role as parent and teacher has been to help her on her way.
And after the lockdown ends? My fear is that we will return to educational normality, or at least, to what has passed for normality since the Victorian revolution. What I long for is a Slow Education movement grounded in a renewed appreciation of leisure, home educators and schools coming together to share their expertise, parents and teachers working in tandem, each respecting the other’s work. Only then will we end the boom or bust approach to education that sees students become paralysed with anxiety during term time and then veg out during holidays. Only then will we transform the education our children receive.