The Meaning of School

At what point or time would we ever come to reflect on the true meaning of a word (and, really, a world) we have understood so clearly since age four or five?

School is the place we went every day between ages five and eighteen to sit in classrooms with rows of desks, to listen to teachers, to read books, and to work hard. It is a place, it is an environment, it is an idea, and yet even being all those things, we have no reason to question it. School is, in many ways, our childhood and our adolescence.

But in his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper writes nonchalantly of how skole in Greek, scola in Latin, meant leisure. It is from here that we derive the English school, meaning, to most of us, leisure’s opposite.

The etymology struck me as only the most obvious ideas, too long hidden, seem to do. Of course school, a place of learning, should be derived from the idea of leisure. Studies have shown that students accelerate most in their learning over summer holidays (which explains a large part of the effect of socioeconomic status on learning outcomes, as students of wealthier families will have more books and other resources at home). Most students themselves will know they learn a great deal when reading for pleasure. Some of the most productive learning time may be spent relaxing on a couch, staring at a laptop screen while stuck in a Wikipedia rabbit hole.

Waking up on a Sunday morning in summer with nothing to do all day but read a book has been the most meaningful time I’ve spent learning.

And yet school is a place of hard work. It is hectic, rushing between classes, there is homework each day, there are exams to cram for, too many books to read. From the Greek word for leisure we now derive an institution of busyness and hard work, which the original etymology shows us is precisely the opposite to how learning was thought to take place. Whence and why the shift?

I suppose Ken Robinson’s answer in his famous TED talk may come closest, the idea being that the Industrial Revolution necessitated a change in education that brought it to replicate a production line. But regardless of the cause, school today probably does other things aside from the ideal leisure=learning that are worth maintaining.

The trick, I think, is in our own lives in education, and perhaps our childrens’, to not lose sight of the original ideal of how learning takes place; to carve out time for leisure, and to avoid the trap of leisure guilt. It is to know what learning means to us, and find time for that at all costs, regardless of the time we spend in the school=busyness world.

Swimming Upstream at College

“It is particularly painful when those colleges at the top of the usual lists, the ones with the most resources and (as they like to claim) the most talent, fail to confront their obligations—when, as the former dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis, puts it, they “affect horror” that “students attend college in the hope of becoming financially successful, but… offer students neither a coherent view of the point of a college education nor any guidance on how they might discover for themselves some larger purpose in life.”

— Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

The gap between the ideal of a liberal arts education and its reality seems ever-growing. It isn’t that one cannot pursue an ideal kind of liberal education at a liberal arts college—the kind that focusses on self-examination, reading the great books to give meaning to experience. One can pursue that education. But what Delbanco so aptly puts is that when students arrive on campus, there is no mention of that larger vision of liberal education, no reminders that that is what we are here for.

And so education begins to merge with the language used daily, the subtle pressures from university offices and graduate employers. It is not overt, and it isn’t sinister. It is simply that in the busyness and pressures of everyday life at college, thought about the purpose of it all becomes a luxury one cannot afford. That is the great irony of a college education today.

To pursue liberal education as one thought about it before starting college, then, is not just to choose one path of two when they diverge… Instead, it is to swim upstream, against the current. It requires twice the strength over a sustained period of time, and it’s often all too easy to say simply, let’s go with the flow.

“Write a story about how school is the biggest trick ever”

I recently found a note from 2011 in my to-do list. I was still in my second to last year of high school at the time, clearly frustrated and bored and wanting something more. The note, set with a due date of December 2011, reads:

“Write a story about how school is the biggest trick ever. Everyone is made to want good grades and the better grades you get the more brainwashed you are.”

I haven’t written the story. I don’t know if I ever will, or if I even know how to. But I rediscovered it at a good time. I’m neck-deep in my penultimate year of college and somehow seem expected to plan a life while juggling endless assignments and extracurriculars. The fog of each week’s deliverables can blind me even to the week after, and the longer-term future can seem enveloped in such a mist that thought about it is futile, at best, and likely even dangerous. With the fog of busyness comes an inevitable forgetfulness about the past. We think endlessly about the present, and at times the future—the present, because that is where those assignments loom, and the future, because that is supposedly what all this is for—but rarely about the past.

The truth is that the inevitable presentness (presentism does not quite describe it) of college and the culture of busy led me to believe that my preoccupation with education was a recent one. My friends will attest, perhaps even protest, that I spend too much time these days thinking and talking about the meaning of our education. I had come to think that college had given me a new perspective on my prior education, and that my fascination with these systems was a newfound interest. I’d been completely blinded by the present to how long-standing this interest and my frustration had been.

When we are told to find the causes we truly care about we look to how we feel at present. That’s logical, but this episode has shown me that the right place to look is probably the past. What are the things that have preoccupied you over a longer period of time, never as a blinding passion, but as a frustration and concern? I’ve now found more and more notes from over the years—even as far back as primary school—on the education system in some form or another. Who knows what I’ll do with it, but seeing how this has concerned me over a longer period comes as a sense of security and clarity that this is not an interest that will die anytime soon.

Back to the note. What to make of it?

Reading it brought back a strong sense of how I was feeling at the time I must have penned it. From years nine through eleven (roughly ages 13-16) I had felt immensely creative and productive. There was a period during which I was working for multiple news and media companies, writing articles daily, giving speeches (about education, no less), traveling to conferences. It was a ridiculous life for a high school student, but the sheer number of ideas I felt I was having meant I didn’t want to slow down or put it off. People are simply creative at different times. But as I entered my last two years of high school and the workload picked up it had eventually become a choice: do the work, get the grades, go to university, or stop and focus on all this. I wavered, even at one point chose the latter, but ultimately committed to school.

Immediately I felt as though my creativity was crushed. I no longer had a continuous stream of ideas to write into essays and articles, the number of thoughts and ideas I was recording in notebooks dropped and then ended entirely. The search for productivity made me focus on so many small things that I had nothing left with which to think about the larger. Parker Palmer describes precisely this in his commencement address on “Living from the Inside Out”: “The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results.”

“Brainwashing” now seems strong and too Orwellian/Kafkaesque, but that’s how it felt at the time.

It was not a function of time. I was busy, but certainly could have found time to write and give occasional speeches. The problem was that the more I read and memorised my textbooks—the more I studied and learned to give the answers that would get me an A—the less clearly and creatively I could think. I filled my mind with little things, and forgot how to think about the larger. It became a direct relationship in my mind, an economic law: better grades leads to lower creativity & less thoughtfulness, and vice versa.

Of course, it’s not the grades themselves leading to lower creativity, but what good grades require: a relentless pursuit of productivity, consumption of facts, memorisation, in-the-box thinking. I think the hope for ambitious and creative students lies in analysing what exactly it is that good grades require, and seeing whether those can be done in ways that don’t require such a trade-off. Yet there might still come point when a decision is needed on whether one is willing to sacrifice the As for creativity and mindfulness. There isn’t a correct answer there, but rather an important personal decision.

Ultimately, it is precisely the perilous mixture of ambition and creativity that poses the problem, for one requires conformity and the other its exact opposite.

I laughed when I first read the note. “School is the biggest trick ever.” How inevitable it is that we laugh at ourselves as we grow intellectually, and the simplicity and surety of the statement certainly makes me chuckle. But the sense of it still remains in me. My education, including at college, has been a struggle to learn while maintaining a sense of creativity and self. College has been better, the most stimulating years of my life, especially since coming to understand the meaning of the liberal arts and becoming free to pursue that kind of learning. But that core concern embedded in my note—the brainwashing, the reductionism of education—still gives me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, even if today I laugh at my sixteen-year-old self.

Learning How To Do Nothing

I don’t remember the crash.

I was riding my bike in a race at West Point, the United States Military Academy. The peloton of over 80 riders was moving fast, over 60km/h, on a gradual downhill section. It was a wonderfully sunny day, one of the first since a New England winter that had sucked the vitality out of landscapes and people, and everyone was riding hard but still able to enjoy the springlike roads and scenery. I was right in the middle of the pack of riders, sheltered from the wind, and as the speeds picked up on the downhill I had that magical feeling that comes from riding in a group at high speeds—the smooth sound of aerodynamic bodies and bikes slicing through the wind, the clicking of expensive freehubs rotating as sheltered riders pedalled softly. The riders around me all had the same feeling, and we couldn’t help but exchange grins despite being competitors.

A slight unexpected movement amongst the riders ahead of me. Then I’m on my back on the concrete, my legs tangled at inhuman angles with my bike, one foot still clipped into a pedal, and I’m doing mental checks to determine the damage to my body. Pain everywhere, blood down my left arm and leg, an intense, sharp jabbing pain in my tailbone, difficulty moving my right leg. I didn’t know it at the time—it must have been the adrenaline—but the tailbone wasn’t my main concern. The medics, when they reached me after checking on some of the other riders who had broken bones, noticed immediately that my helmet was shattered. I still don’t know if I had passed out or for how long, but the pain and dizziness in my head hit me a few hours later while I waited to be seen in a nearby hospital.

Concussion. Which, my doctor tells me, science still knows relatively little about. I was prescribed ’cognitive rest’, which essentially involves this: do nothing to stress your brain, in the same way you wouldn’t work out after pulling a muscle. No reading, no intense conversations, no laptop, and as little phone as possible. Maintain this regimen until you feel better.

The first couple of days after my crash were confusing and irritating, and I cannot emphasise the difficulty I had in avoiding the magnet-like pull of my phone to my hand. But with time came ease of thought and a clarity of mind that I have not felt before. There just seemed to be so much time. From the moment I woke up and proceeded  to not spend the next ten minutes checking emails and Facebook, life was slower and more internal. Each hour lasted longer, and evenings stretched on. It was an unbelievable change from the busyness and rushing and stress and the feeling that there was never enough time in a day that I’d had throughout the previous week, month, years.

I kept wondering what to do with my eyes. Over breakfast I stared into my coffee, stared into my bowl, stared blankly at the table, and felt absurd for not doing anything. I couldn’t pretend to read a newspaper and couldn’t pull out my phone, which is our automatic act whenever faced with being alone with nothing else to do. I feared what people would think of me sitting alone and just staring, doing nothing at all other than thinking.

Our society is one that seeks productivity and disdains anything that isn’t, so much so that the feeling of what I call leisure guilt is one most of us are familiar with. Leisure guilt is that niggling in the mind during activities we find pleasurable but which don’t involve a laptop. I get it when I’m out cycling or when I go for a walk, when I spend a little too long with friends over dinner talking politics, and when I’m reading a book unrelated to schoolwork. I’ve even had leisure guilt when spending too long on class readings I’m enjoying, because I should be moving on more quickly to other tasks. Leisure guilt says this isn’t going to help you achieve anything, get back to work.

If we feel leisure guilt even when reading or discussing politics with friends it’s no surprise we feel it when doing precisely nothing. Doing nothing these days usually involves lying on a couch scrolling through Instagram; it needs to be distinguished from properly doing nothing nothing. The latter can even seem impossible. Who these days sits on a park bench with their hands on their knees and stares into space? Where would you even look? Wouldn’t people think you’re strange? And if you do try it, the urge to pull out your phone can become all too great to resist.

Another word for doing nothing is ‘daydreaming’, which is often used as an insult. It implies unproductiveness, impracticality, a head in the clouds. No one wants to be called a daydreamer, that person alone on the park bench staring awkwardly into space. Yet with my concussion, unable to be productive and do things, I could really only do exactly that—sit on a bench in the sun at Yale’s Cross Campus and daydream, letting my mind wander as it pleased.

Daydreaming is the antithesis of productivity. Productivity is to be sought and daydreaming avoided, society says. Where daydreaming at its best still leads to nothing tangible, productivity gives us the pleasure of ticking off to-dos, sending emails, reading pages, writing words and crunching numbers. Productivity leads to results we can see, and makes us feel good about ourselves. With limited time each day and a culture of busy, who would consciously take time to daydream, to do nothing?

But what crashing my bicycle taught me is that we undervalue doing nothing—and even if we realise its value, it is a process to learn how to do it.

The truth is that without daydreaming our productive time may be spent on activities that weren’t worth pursuing in the first place. To focus solely on productivity, without ever giving ourselves space and time to daydream, is like starting to cook a meal before knowing what you want to eat or even having a recipe. It is to ask yourself a more specific question before asking yourself the larger question that determines which specific questions to ask. You don’t go to the supermarket before asking yourself whether you even need anything, and you don’t start cooking before knowing what you’re making. And yet when it comes to productivity, we frequently fill our days with tasks before giving ourselves the space to ask whether those tasks are ones we ultimately want or need to be doing in the first place.

Life sweeps our bicycles out from under us. Had I not had time to do nothing, I would have learned nothing from my crash. Yet having had this time, I maintain that daydreaming’s most important function is in giving us the mental space to answer fundamental questions about ourselves and our lives. Productivity is merely time spent, never to be recovered, unless it is done with a purpose that is well understood. We must give ourselves the time and space to form the blueprints of our lives, and to do that we must realise the absurdity of our leisure guilt.