Leisure

A few years ago I contributed to Academic Questions, a quarterly journal of the National Association of Scholars. Academic Questions focuses on the “vices and virtues of the contemporary university,” and my contribution was a part of their 2013 “Ideas for Higher Ed Reform.” Of the suggested topics, I chose “Advise students on one way to make the most of their college experience.” I’m sharing that contribution here, because it ties in with intention, suspension, and relationships:

Recovering 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 recline on a grassy spot beneath some graceful willow, pulling your iPad out to read a bit. You’ve 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. 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?

What better way to make the most of a college experience than by intentionally retreating from noise? The gift of college 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.

Suspension

“On week ends in summer the town empties,” writes E.B. White of New York City in his 1949 essay. “No phone rings, no one feeds the hungry IN-baskets, no one disturbs the papers; it is a building of the dead, a time of awesome suspension.” Imagine this today.

What White describes is a state of leisure. Leisure is something we lack today, because as Joe Kraus says we tend to fill up our “gap time” with mindless screen engagement. Leisure can be a context for learning—that state of “suspension” that gives us time to think.

E.B. White shares a scene he saw and truly observed during his time in Manhattan more than six decades ago. Pour yourself a drink worth drinking slowly. Enjoy.

It is seven o’clock and I re-examine an ex-speakeasy in East 53rd Street, with dinner in mind. A thin crowd, a summer-night buzz of fans interrupted by an occasional drink being shaken at the small bar. It is dark in here (the proprietor sees no reason for boosting his light bill just because liquor laws have changed). How dark, how pleasing; and how miraculously beautiful the murals showing Italian lake scenes—probably executed by a cousin of the owner. The owner himself mixes. The fans intone the prayer for cool salvation. From the next booth drifts the conversation of radio executives; from the green salad comes the little taste of garlic. Behind me (eighteen inches again) a young intellectual is trying to persuade a girl to come live with him and be his love. She has her guard up, but he is extremely reasonable, careful not to overplay his hand. A combination of intellectual companionship and sexuality is what they have to offer each other, he feels. In the mirror over the bar I can see the ritual of the second drink. Then he has to go to the men’s room and she has to go to the ladies’ room, and when they return, the argument has lost its tone. And the fan takes over again, the argument has lost its tone. And the memory of so many good little dinners in so many good little illegal places, with the theme of love, the sound of ventilation, the brief medicinal illusion of gin.

Another hot night I stop off at the Goldman Band concert in the Mall in Central Park. The people seated on the benches fanned out in front of the band shell are attentive, appreciative. In the trees the night wind stirs, bringing the leaves to life, endowing them with speech; the electric lights illuminate the green branches from the under side, translating them into a new language. Overhead a plane passes dreamily, its running lights winking. On the bench directly in front of me, a boy sits with his arm around his girl; they are proud of each other and are swathed in music. The cornetist steps forward for a solo, begins, “Drink to me only with thine eyes…” In the wide, warm night the horn is startlingly pure and magical. Then from the North River another horn solo begins—the Queen Mary announcing her intentions. She is not on key; she is a half tone off. The trumpeter in the bandstand never flinches. The horns quarrel savagely, but no one minds having the intimation of travel injected into the pledge of love. “I leave,” sobs Mary. “And I will pledge with mine,” sighs the trumpeter. Along the asphalt paths strollers pass to and fro; they behave considerately, respecting the musical atmosphere. Popsicles are moving well. In the warm grass beyond the fence, forms wriggle in the shadows, and the skirts of the girls approaching on the Mall are ballooned by the breeze, and their bare shoulders catch the lamplight. “Drink to me only with thine eyes.” It is a magical occasion, and it’s all free.