Our Education is Leisure, Not Work

By Guest Contributor

How many times in a single day do you hear or say the following phrases? “I need to go do work.” “I have so much work to do.” It seems that this is the Middlebury College anthem. But it should not be. It is like a broken record or a cacophony on repeat. I myself am guilty of contributing to this chorus, but I am trying to switch over to phrases like: “I am going to do some reading tonight,” or “I am planning on writing a paper.”

This may seem trivial. Why does word choice matter? It matters because the words we use for the things we do affect the things themselves, as well as our relationship to them. We spend much of our time at Middlebury studying. When we call this activity work, we generate deep dissatisfaction and existential confusion within ourselves.

The highest form of leisure was once thought to consist in contemplation of universal things. This activity was engaged in for its own sake. Living a life of leisure – of schole – was supposed to be the best life, the happiest life. If contemplation is the highest form of leisure, the idea of schoolwork creates a vicious opposition. What is our leisure supposed to consist of if school is work?

Leisure as it was originally conceived lies at the heart of liberal education. We came to Middlebury to study, to contemplate, to wonder, to imagine, to hypothesize.

Think about the nature of the things we study. They are liberal. This means that they are engaged in for their own sake. They are beautiful and they speak to our souls. Haven’t you ever read a sentence in a novel and felt awe at the author’s eloquence? Haven’t you ever looked under a microscope and been blown away at the sheer intricacy of the cell?

When we treat these things as work, we dislocate them. We force them into the everyday. Yet, the objects of our study are fundamentally different from the everyday. The activities we engage in during leisure, in our studies, are meant to transcend the workplace – it is against their nature to be thought of as a part of it. The act of referring to our study as work both corrupts the nature of the things we study and generates a looming anxiety as to what we may engage in for its own sake.

Going to a party is a brief respite from (what we call) work – a breath of bodily enjoyment in a cycle of mental labor. Hanging out with friends is enjoyable, but is often limited by time constraints due to impending deadlines.

We may listen to music for its own sake, or attend religious services, or look at the stars. But these things are all close in spirit to the study of the liberal arts. If we can find beauty and leisure in them, surely we may re-examine the time we spend studying and consider at least some of it as time spent in leisure.

This idea of school as work is especially important to consider in the midst of impending education reform. Universities around the world are becoming increasingly focused on specialization and vocational training. Whether we as Middlebury students like it or not, we currently attend a liberal arts college. It is our responsibility to maintain the freedom of the things we study, or in other words, to ensure that we study them for their own sake.

We have a responsibility to the thinkers, teachers and students of the past, who built up and preserved the intellectual tradition that we are now a part of. We also have responsibilities to those students in the future, who will be able to grasp for wisdom, contemplate beautiful things and realize their potential because of our devotion to the essence of our college.

Finally, we are responsible to ourselves and our souls. You came to Middlebury for a reason. There was something inside of you that gravitated toward the idea of the College as an interval in one’s life, apart from the outside world. You have a desire to search for wisdom, to find the answers, to define your truth or seek out a Truth, if there is one. This is precisely what you do when you study. Take pleasure in this and know that you are engaging in this journey for its own sake. Know that any activity of this nature cannot and should not be thought of as work.

Middlebury is meant to be a place of leisure. If we want to preserve the essence of this institution and understand it as it must be understood, we must first change the way we speak and think about our primary activity.

Jenna Lifhits ’15 is from Unionville, Conn.