A Great Idea: Recovering a Disposition for Leisure

The National Association of Scholars published a small contribution I wrote when visiting Zach Zimbler in Princeton a few months ago. The short contribution, titled “Recover a Disposition for Leisure,” is a part of the feature “One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education” and appears in the Winter 2012 issue of the journal Academic Questions. I wrote it thinking of the Nittany Valley. Here it is:

Recover a Disposition for Leisure

As you alight the steps from your last class of the day you instinctively attend to your iPhone. A few missed calls. Two voicemails. A few e-mails. A text message. Assorted notifications. Nothing pressing, though. There’s still time to enjoy the fading day as afternoon turns to evening, so you sit to recline on a grassy spot beneath some graceful willow, pulling your iPad out to read a bit. You get a few hundred words in before the iPhone is ringing, nagging again. Ignore. Then your iPad reminders kick in, finally and irrevocably pulling you from your reading, and from the evening.

This is our life now, for many professors as well as for students. There is so little room for quiet or leisure or silence. In The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton reminds us that “our word for school comes from the Greek word for leisure. Of course, reasoned the Greek, given leisure a man will employ it in thinking and finding out about things. Leisure and the pursuit of knowledge, the connection was inevitable…”

What a still radical and revolutionary insight—leisure, rather than programming or activities, as the context for discovery and learning! Even in Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional world, The Diogenes Club was a necessary refuge from loudness and distraction.

Can we build physical, explicit spaces for leisure on our campuses? Where no devices are allowed? Where questing is the goal? Where eternal rather than ephemeral labors are sought?

Professors should encourage students to make the most of the college experience by intentionally retreating from noise. The gift of a college education is the opportunity to retreat from the world prior to commencing lives within it.

A bit of the wisdom of the Greeks is calling to us, if only we have a moment to think it over.

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