Fractal Frisbee?

05.23.145:45 AM ET

College Kids Should Major in Leisure

The word ‘school’ comes from the Greek word for ‘leisure.’ But in today’s colleges, students and their teachers too often draw a line between learning and having fun.

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.

Growing to love a subject is like falling in love with someone: it's nice to linger over the details, and feeling rushed and pressured tends to ruin things.

It’s wonderful to hear teachers emphasize the intrinsic interest and beauty of a subject, but students also need to experience skhole while still in school. It’s one thing to be told how fascinating a subject is, but without the leisure to actually experience this, many students are essentially being told “this is interesting, really, take my word for it! Now go read 300 pages before next class.” However engaging those pages might be, if students simply lack the time to savor and contemplate the material, they will enjoy the subject less than they would at a leisurely pace of work.

Growing to love a subject is like falling in love with someone: it’s nice to linger over the details, and feeling rushed and pressured tends to ruin things. I started to love Ancient Greek philosophy at a café in Athens where I had leisurely conversations with a professor whose seminars never seemed nearly long enough. The questions he raised had a way of spilling beyond the hour-long class to fill entire mornings. The experience would have been radically different had he required these meetings or placed a watch on the café table and ended as soon as the allotted time had passed.

Enjoyment of school isn’t just a luxury; it’s an essential part of becoming good at something. Aristotle makes this point best: “It is those who enjoy geometrical thinking that become geometers and grasp the various propositions better, and, similarly, those who are fond of music or of building, and so on, make progress in their proper function by enjoying it.”

How we study a subject, in other words, affects both how accomplished we become and whether we ever voluntarily return to it in our leisure time. So, are American students learning to love and master the subjects they study?

More than 500 colleges use a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment to measure academic progress. The results are discouraging: 36 percent of students make absolutely no improvement in writing, complex reasoning, or critical thinking during four years of college. If Aristotle is right that enjoyment drives accomplishment, then this stunning lack of progress suggests that many students don’t enjoy school at all. And it’s likely that even those who do show improvement would realize larger gains if they enjoyed school more.

This is not to say that teachers should assign no homework and simply hope that students will magically discover the delights of a subject with their leisure time. But the best homework does not feel like homework. It feels like a sufficiently meaningful and enjoyable activity that you might pursue it in your leisure time.

By giving brief but meaningful homework, teachers can allow enjoyment to replace efficiency as a guiding value for students. Excessive quantities of homework, however meaningful, stress and overwhelm students, leading them to focus only on finishing as quickly as possible. This deprives them of the leisure necessary to appreciate and enjoy the contemplation of a subject, and those who have never experienced the pleasures of a subject are unlikely to spend future leisure time pursuing it.

If we want students to enjoy intellectual activity for its own sake, compelling them to learn material for the next assignment, midterm, or test is often counterproductive. Student motives matter. Instead of administering yet another quiz or test, teachers might ask themselves: How many of my students would want to learn and study this even if it were not on a test?

The solution is not to eliminate all tests and evaluations, but rather to clarify what they reveal. If a deeper purpose of a class is to enable sufficient mastery to later enjoy a subject in leisure time, then a low grade on a test just indicates that a precondition for this sort of rich enjoyment has not yet been achieved. A high grade is not the goal itself; it simply shows a level of command that makes possible a certain kind of activity in leisure.

The prospect of structuring leisure into courses demands better teaching. If teachers can’t motivate students to pay attention with the old standby of proclaiming that the material will be on the test, they have to think about what makes a subject interesting and convey this persuasively.

Inevitably some students will just text, chat, or blissfully vegetate if given more leisure. But there is also a pedagogical cost to minimizing free time. The stress and anxiety that accompany frantic busyness and frequent evaluations not only make learning more difficult, they cause students to associate these negative emotions with the very subjects in which professors hope to interest them. One result is that it’s rare to overhear students eagerly anticipating the time they’ll have over break to cozy up with Euclid’s Elements or the novels of Dostoyevsky.

Aristotle himself was fortunate to experience school in the original sense of the word; he spent roughly 20 years as a student at Plato’s Academy in Athens. The value of leisure was one subject on which both teacher and pupil agreed. In the Republic, after rushing through an argument and missing a key step, Plato’s Socrates has a moment of self-insight that still resonates: “In my haste to be done I was making less speed.”

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