One of the stranger ironies of language is that our word “school” comes from the ancient Greek skhole, which means “leisure” or “free time.” Leisure, of course, is the last thing that students balancing difficult courses with sports, clubs, or internships associate with school. Yet extravagant spending by colleges to finance movie theaters, climbing walls, and even a roving ice cream truck does seem designed to support a certain sort of leisure. So what exactly is the connection between school and leisure?
The link isn’t just a quirk of Greek. “Liberal arts” comes from the Latin artes liberales, which referred to the subjects citizens studied in their free time. Leisure is inherent in the very words “school” and “liberal arts,” and it’s unsurprising that leisure-enabling wealth was a precondition for school in antiquity. The connection between wealth and educational attainment is still strong. Fifty percent of American children from households with a total income of more than $90,000 will earn a college degree by age 24. Roughly 6 percent of children from families earning less than $35,000 will finish college by the same age. Many other statistics suggest that leisure enables school, yet two key questions are rarely asked: What is the role of leisure during school, and for what sort of leisure do we want education to prepare us?
When students approach breaks and vacations, it’s common to hear them anticipate blissful vegetation: sleeping late, eating well, lounging about, and generally doing as little as possible. After recuperating a bit, they might hit the climbing wall or the quad for some Frisbee golf. This is a model of leisure as recreation and amusement. Its imagery and rhetoric saturate advertising and college brochures, and after a busy semester crammed with work, the impulse for such relaxation is perfectly understandable.
Yet there is something unsettling about the idea of extending vacation activities indefinitely. A brief rejuvenating respite is appealing, but imagine a lifetime of amusements and entertainment and you enter realms of dystopian fiction as varied as Pixar’s WALL-E and Huxley’s Brave New World.
For this reason, professors and teachers often want to instill a model of leisure based on the enjoyment of intellectual activity for its own sake. Aristotle articulated precisely such a vision of education in his Politics: “There are branches of learning and education which we must study merely with a view to leisure spent in intellectual activity, and these are to be valued for their own sake.”
Most professors agree with Aristotle. They love the thought of former students reading philosophy, science, mathematics, or literature in their free time simply for the pleasure of doing so. Yet if this is a valuable aspiration, it’s worth considering whether our current educational culture prepares students “to be in leisure well,” as Aristotle puts it.
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