Leisurely learning

I’ve been talking about sleep a lot lately. I’ve been getting plenty myself these days, but it seems a lot of my students haven’t. So when they come to my office feeling panicky, stressed and overwhelmed, one of the first things I ask them is “how are you sleeping?” It’s becoming a common question on campus; the student wellness and counselling folks tell me they’re busy encouraging students to work on their “sleep hygiene” too.

Part of the reason for this endemic sleep deprivation is plain old poor time management skills. But just as often, it’s because the pressure is on. School can feel like such a high-stakes place, and students want good grades, want to please their parents and want to find success in the competitive job market. The pressure is internal and external, and it’s a lot to bear, and so for a lot of students, the rhythm of academic life is punctuated by caffeinated cram sessions that last well into the wee hours.

Usually at some point in the conversation I blurt out: “do you know where we get the English word ‘school’ from?” (I find it terribly hard to resist giving a lesson in etymology). “School” came into our language via the German word schule, which was an adaptation of the Latin word schola, which is rooted in the Greek word scholé (σχολή). And scholé, for the Greeks, meant “leisure.”
Usually this is where their eyes start to glaze, or roll back into their head. What they’re experiencing hardly feels like leisure, and, yeah, I should probably be focusing more on pastoral commiseration than on word derivation.

Flirting with idols
But I think there’s a blessedly subversive point to be made here. We’ve made education into something stressful and frantic, a training ground for anxiety, something to slog through. We’ve made it the servant of the marketplace, and the servant of our prideful preoccupation with social status and upward mobility. All that is anti-leisure, and not only the opposite of education’s purpose, but a very real flirtation with some serious idols. In light of that, we need to rediscover the leisurely character of education.

I’ve been thumbing my way through Jean LeClerq’s The Desire for God and the Love of Learning, a 1961 exploration of medieval monastic life, which is particularly attentive to how monks understood the purpose of their education. LeClerq says that the monastic life was one of leisurely learning, but it was a “very busy leisure.” That might sound contradictory; we tend to think of leisure as having to do more with time off than time on the clock. But the monks thought it possible to find rest right in the very midst of their busyness. That’s because the life in the monastery anticipated eternal rest; the contemplative life was aimed past itself, pointing beyond the quotidian anxieties and preoccupations that so often distract us from God’s presence in the very midst of it all. It recalled Augustine’s famous maxim: our hearts are restless until they rest in God.

LeClerq describes how monks use seemingly paradoxical terms to describe their learning, like the “contemplative bed,” or even “waking sleep.” Maybe that’s a little too mystical for our tastes, but there’s something to be said for using paradoxical language to help us recall a reality that might not seem immediately apparent in the frantic scramble of our lives, whether it’s lived on campus, or off.

A couple weeks ago, right in the midst of campus exam busyness, I received a Facebook message at 2 a.m. from a Laurier student who’d recently been subjected to my little lesson about the roots of the word school. (I should say I didn’t see the message until about 8 a.m. that morning; fatherhood has left me thoroughly estranged from the early ante meridiem hours). It began: “As I sit here in the 24 hour lounge on campus, amidst empty cans of Red Bull and a half eaten jar of peanut butter, I’m reminded of all that God has blessed me with. God is good even at 2 a.m. . . .”
And I thought, OK, maybe she hasn’t found the sleep she needs, but it sounds like she’s found some rest. That’s a good start.

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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