Do most people later in life think of their student days as a golden springtime? I remember my undergraduate years in Cambridge as a green idyll, filled with books, old buildings, college gardens, and walks along a river. This was more than 25 years ago, but it seems more like 10,000 — a different lifetime, a different me. I don’t think that time and distance have purged away all unpleasantnesses and left me with this glowing mist of good memories. It really was idyllic. At the time I had a long-distance girlfriend who lived in Germany and whom I saw during vacations, and since I was quite loyal my romantic life was simple, peaceful, and not a constant tangle of unpredictable distractions; we were both readers, and communicated through long letters every day. I have also always hated parties and other large gatherings dedicated to the Having of Fun — that mysterious godhead — so my social life was confined to long conversations with a small group of friends, often over beer or on walks, and usually about books, films, and music. There was always time for these conversations.
My academic life was not crammed with classes: at Cambridge in those days, lectures and seminars were optional, and the obligatory events were “supervisions” (called tutorials elsewhere), in which no more than a handful of students met once a week with a professor to discuss assigned work. Most of my supervisions were one-to-one meetings with my mentors Arthur Sale and Charles Moseley. I would have three supervisions in an average week: one for translating a French text, one for “Practical Criticism” (in which three or four of us met to do close readings of a poem or prose passage — this was a specialty of Cambridge), and one for study of the writers of a given period. The latter was the most important, because the depth and care with which you studied the authors of the significant periods of English literature would form the foundation for your effectiveness in the high-stakes essay exams at the end of each year. Each week I would spend most of my time reading the works of an author and then writing a 4-5 page essay on some theme stemming from them that I would frame for myself. The night before the supervision, I would slip the essay underneath my tutor’s door, and the next day we would meet to discuss my essay. To give an example: Let’s say the period to be studied that term was the Restoration and 18th century. I remember that during that term I read and wrote on Dryden, Restoration dramatists, Defoe, Swift, Fielding, Pope, Johnson; there might have been a few more, but these writers left a strong impression on me. For Fielding week I had to read Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews; for Swift, I was assigned Gulliver’s Travels, the famous shorter satirical works, and his poems — but I also read The Tale of the Tub. I was overwhelmed by Johnson: after reading Rasselas, the essays, the poems, the preface to the Dictionary and his writings on Shakespeare, I was smitten and read his Lives of the Poets too — with the result that I found myself drowning in one man’s tumultuous ocean of prose and needing two weeks to learn how to swim in it. In any one week, I usually had only one big thing to chew upon; my time was not packed with various tasks tugging at me, and I was able to mull, to feel things out, and let an author work on me. I know that a week isn’t much — but to a receptive, alert young soul, a week spent inside the mind of one great author can feel like a whole life well lived — especially when in much of that week, time has been forgotten. Indeed, losing track of time is one of the great blessings of such an education: sitting on a river bank, reading Fielding and only looking up when I found it too dark to read, realizing that I had missed dinner but not minding because I was still lost in happy absorption…in such a state, life is complete and there is nothing lacking. I would then walk back to my room, grab something to eat, and go find my friends. Writing came easily to me then, because the words flowed naturally from an unconstrained, relaxed cohabitation with the books I was studying; I did not have to switch gears every three hours to meet the challenge of a different task.
I am reminding myself of all this because my academic life now is very different, and the reminder is a healthy jolt. The college I teach at has been praised for being “the most rigorous college in America” — ambivalent praise, to my ears. On the one hand, it is nice that an evaluating body can acknowledge that a genuine liberal education is in fact hard work, distinguished by intellectual exactitude and toughness. On the other hand, I’ve always been skeptical of “rigor” — which can often be a numbing capacity for relentless application void of creativity or profundity, and which is more like rigor mortis. The rigor of St.John’s is not that deadly rigor, but the rigor of difficult texts studied under tight schedules. For example, in a given week a Freshman could be studying Thucydides, the later books of Euclid, the Meno in Greek, Lavoisier, and the rudiments of music theory — with a paper or two thrown in, and about 20 hours of class time (in contrast to my three hours in Cambridge!). Their “tutors” keep more or less the same pace, and if these tutors also have families they have barely any time for reflection. It is impressive work that creates powerful minds able to exert themselves quickly across a range of different kinds of thinking — but where is there time to dwell, deepen, expand, and grow organically to love the books? Only when the students are Seniors do they get the blissful freedom of a 4-week empty period in which to write an essay on a single book — and even here there are faculty members who wonder why they need all that time. I answer: In these four weeks they learn what it is to gain their own quiet intimacy with a book, to change their minds about it several times, to write and reject their own drafts, to come up with thoughts they are pleased with and then, several days later, to find these same thoughts inadequate. In this process they become deeper and more authentic as students because they find their own rhythm for thought and speech — one that is not imposed on them from outside. Their relationship with books turns into their own — something more than what is needed to generate thoughts for the next class.
Unfortunately the tendency in schools at every level is to fill all the available time: keep them busy, keep them productive — and the measure of a student’s success is made by the numbers: how many hours of class, grade point average, salary after graduating. Academic life thus merely mirrors the obsessions of a society oriented towards business — and therefore towards busyness. If busyness has an opposite, it world be “doing nothing” — a kind of passivity, preferably in front of screens, on which there flows a continuous stream of suggestions for things to buy. Even our play-activities are subject to the tyranny of numbers — sports, video games, TV ratings. We distrust “free time” that is not measured in this way, because we have to have something to show for everything we do; and the young are sucked into this ethos whereby all time has to be scheduled. I am always shocked to hear about schools that teach 6-year-olds how to schedule their days: No, no, no — children are supposed to have no sense of time! In academic institutions, it could be that the need to fill every hour comes from guilt about charging tuition: we have to reassure everyone that students are getting their money’s worth. Moreover, adults generally mistrust the wildness, the contrariness, of the teenage spirit: how can we be sure they will use the time wisely? The answer is that we can never be sure; indeed, we can be sure many will not use it wisely — and even that it is hard to know beforehand what “wise” use of time might look like in many cases. Leisure is always a risk, but it is a risk without which very little that is creative and original can arise.
In his 1877 essay “An Apology for Idlers,” Robert Louis Stevenson points out that it is in our unscheduled hours that our real education happens:
If you look back on your own education, I am sure it will not be the full, vivid, instructive hours of truantry that you regret; you would rather cancel some lack-lustre periods between sleep and waking in the class. For my own part, I have attended a good many lectures in my time. I still remember that the spinning of a top is a case of Kinetic Stability. I still remember that Emphyteusis is not a disease, nor Stillicide a crime. But though I would not willingly part with such scraps of science, I do not set the same store by them as by certain other odds and ends that I came by in the open street while I was playing truant. This is not the moment to dilate on that mighty place of education, which was the favourite school of Dickens and of Balzac, and turns out yearly many inglorious masters in the Science of the Aspects of Life. Suffice it to say this: if a lad does not learn in the streets, it is because he has no faculty of learning. Nor is the truant always in the streets, for if he prefers, he may go out by the gardened suburbs into the country. He may pitch on some tuft of lilacs over a burn, and smoke innumerable pipes to the tune of the water on the stones. A bird will sing in the thicket. And there he may fall into a vein of kindly thought, and see things in a new perspective. Why, if this be not education, what is?
While others are filling their memory with a lumber of words, one-half of which they will forget before the week be out, your truant may learn some really useful art: to play the fiddle, to know a good cigar, or to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men.
But to value leisure for its usefulness is to remain limed in the busyness-mindset. Usefulness cannot be an end in itself, and if the aim of most people is to attain a certain level of contentment, of happy vitality, we have to allow ourselves the spaciousness to slow down and dwell in activity that is for its own sake.
Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. Bring these fellows into the country, or set them aboard ship, and you will see how they pine for their desk or their study. They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still. It is no good speaking to such folk: they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill. When they do not require to go to the office, when they are not hungry and have no mind to drink, the whole breathing world is a blank to them. If they have to wait an hour or so for a train, they fall into a stupid trance with their eyes open. To see them, you would suppose there was nothing to look at and no one to speak with; you would imagine they were paralysed or alienated; and yet very possibly they are hard workers in their own way, and have good eyesight for a flaw in a deed or a turn of the market. They have been to school and college, but all the time they had their eye on the medal; they have gone about in the world and mixed with clever people, but all the time they were thinking of their own affairs. As if a man’s soul were not too small to begin with, they have dwarfed and narrowed theirs by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material of amusement, and not one thought to rub against another, while they wait for the train. Before he was breeched, he might have clambered on the boxes; when he was twenty, he would have stared at the girls; but now the pipe is smoked out, the snuff-box empty, and my gentleman sits bolt upright upon a bench, with lamentable eyes. This does not appeal to me as being Success in Life.
A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than a five-pound note. He or she is a radiating focus of goodwill; and their entrance into a room is as though another candle had been lighted. We need not care whether they could prove the forty-seventh proposition; they do a better thing than that, they practically demonstrate the great Theorem of the Liveableness of Life.
The many days I spent walking by the river with a book, or reading in one of the college gardens, might have seemed mere idleness to someone used to constant grind and pressure — but it is in such idleness that most of the work of studying, of understanding, takes place. The Greek word from which we derive our words school and scholar, σχολή, originally meant leisure. Superficially, we could explain this by saying that we can only study if we have a certain amount of time exempt from labor; studying is something that happens in our free time. But if leisure is not a species of vacancy, a mere privation of work, a state of no activity, then it is a form of activity in which mind and heart can regenerate in the exercise of inquiry and imagination — pure play, in the fullest sense. I would wish this for everyone.