The School of Leisure

Word Count: 471

A term that nearly every individual uses on a day-to-day basis, and yet rarely, if ever, thinks about the meaning of the term is ‘school.’ Our contemporary minds immediately picture educational institutions in which students congregate to learn the information that need to know to succeed in the world. The concept of grouping students together in a centralized location for learning has existed since Classical antiquity; however, it was for a very different reason.

An interesting revelation is brought to the surface when one excavates the origination of the word ‘school,’ and perhaps it is one that ought to be further investigated in the United States in the light of the brokenness of our education system. ‘School’ comes from the ancient Greek word schole [1] meaning simply ‘leisure.’ Leisure was the cultural ideal, “the only life fit for a Greek” [2]. According to Aristotle the “good life,” which all free men should lead, occurred only during leisure. Leisure in Greek society was elitist, privy to the select few who spent their lives in education, cultural pursuits, and contemplation. Contemplation was believed to raise one to a higher intellectual plane of existence. Thus, leisure meant for the Greeks, the freedom to pursue knowledge.

So, although schole can be literally translated as leisure, the meaning differs from how we think of leisure today. In our modern society, leisure is the time in which we can sit an twiddle our thumbs; in the time of Plato and Aristotle, leisure was the time you set aside from your daily routine. However, the time was spent learning, discussing, and contemplating, rather than idleness. Aristotle wrote “we work in order to be at leisure” [3]. Once at leisure, individuals must try to learning what is valuable to know. And thus, formal schools were established to allow citizens (or at least those that could afford it) the opportunity for leisure time, time to devote oneself to education. Schole came to mean “the search for the wisdom of life” [4]; therefore fulfilling one’s obligation to the good life.

If school in Ancient Greece led individuals to Aristotle’s ideal of the good life, perhaps we ought determine what happened along the time-line of the formalized educational institution, because we have certainly come a long ways from the initial purpose of school. Many argue that our contemporary education system teaches students what to think rather than how to think. Maybe it’s time to take a note from the Greeks.

“The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end” [5].

[1] T. F. HOAD. "school." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. 1996. Encyclopedia.com. 25 Nov. 2009
[2] deGrazia, S. (1962). Of time, work, and leisure. Garden City, New York: Anchor books.
[3] Aristotle (1921). Politics. In The Works of Aristotle. Tr. B. Jowett. (Ed.) W. D. Ross.
London, England: Oxford University Press.
[4] Goodale, T. & Godbey, G. (1988). The evolution of leisure. State College, PA: Venture Press.
[5] Aristotle.


andrewg4us said...

I really liked your post Sarah. I do think it is sad in some manner that this term has changed. And as we discussed many times in class, words in turn shape our life, and, in some respect, shape our motives. It would be great if the majority of society would spend their leisure time in learning new things, debating important issues, and teaching; but, as we know with new mediums to occupy our time, leisure are spent in other things. You can thank facebook too! Lol.

Danielle Kavan said...

Your post got me thinking about how we view school, leisure time and work today. I wouldn't lump school in the leisure category based on Generation Y's approach. Leisure is doing nothing - not thinking, playing around on facebook, watching mindless television. School is work - we take the ability to learn for granted and just view it as a task. Maybe that's because we require that students attend school for a minimum of 13 years. Maybe it's all the standardized tests.