Guiltily, I take out the math facts drills, saddened that I am choosing to do “labor” instead of “scholé” again, wrestling internally over whether or not to have the child finish the assignment with which she is struggling.
Do you struggle with scholé guilt? Have you succumbed to this feeling and thrown away the math or Latin book in an effort to have school days composed of just scholé ? I found myself struggling with this, and it led me ad fontes—back to the source—to Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. In this seminal work, Pieper gives us explanations of this concept of scholé and its vital importance in our lives. Scholé is a state of mind, a time for restful thought and reflection, a time and space to make connections, to think about the deeper themes and purposes of life. It is from this Greek word that we get our modern English word “school.” It is instructive, however, to remember that for the Greeks all learning was a privilege: It was an honor for the elite to be allowed the opportunity to learn and study as opposed to doing hard physical labor in the fields or quarries. Pieper’s discussion is in the same vein, contrasting our “workaday world” to that of the life of the mind.
In our quest to incorporate more scholé into our lives and the lives of our children, let us not neglect, however, the virtues of diligence and arête, or excellence. Paul told the Corinthians that he disciplined his body to bring it under control (1 Corinthians 9:27), and to the church of Philippi he said, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14, ESV). Surely the Greek Olympians similarly put in much diligent training to prepare for their competitions.
So, we in classical education find ourselves in need of balancing the dual virtues of diligence and temperance for receptivity. Diligence is required for mastering a new skill or concept, yet temperance in our strivings is needed in order to listen and synthesize our work, allowing us to live and thrive holistically. A key part of what makes us human is our ability to philosophize, or to think about what we are thinking about—to contemplate, to make art and beautiful music. In order to do these things well, however, we need some good meat—knowledge which comes from the hard, active mental labor of studying and memorizing. Without diligent study it is not possible to make beautiful music. Similarly, without knowledge of history and literature it is not possible to converse well across disciplines as an educated adult.
The question is, with what kind of work are we engaged? Is it purposeful or time-wasting? Frenetic or diligent? Time is too precious a gift to be wasted. Our active time should be focused and purposeful. The majority of our school time should be spent engaged in what is known as “active” learning: memorizing poetry or math facts, diagramming sentences, writing essays, chanting Latin declensions, practicing scales on the piano . . . this is the meat of an education. However, contemplation and reflection are also crucial to culture and humanity, so it is a necessary corrective to our often-frenetic school pace to allow for intuition and receptivity without guilt for or neglect of the hard work involved with excellence.
To expect that all of your school days will, or even should, be like drinking a latte while seated on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean is to set yourself up for frustration and disappointment. Drastically altering your curriculum so as to attempt to achieve this sublime experience would be to deprive students of the joy and satisfaction that comes from success through striving and hard work. Virtus tentamine gaudet (“Strength rejoices in the challenge”) is the moto of the college where my family lives and an appropriate reminder as we consider spurring our children on to virtue through hard work. As we are setting up opportunities for scholé, and creating times in our lives in which the muses may alight and that still small voice may be heard when He calls, let us also not feel guilty or abandon the fields, for there is work, there is scholé, to be done.