Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 19: Leisure and Cultivating the Mind

The Greek Way, Chapter 6, Question 4: Why is leisure needed to cultivate the mind?

Imagine a modern Everyman as a tabula rasa upon which is imprinted a post-literate culture. So much time is spent on making a living and the practicalities of life that little time, energy, and interest are left for calm reflection and the life of the mind. The world revolves at such a dizzying pace that he is lost in the kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria of modern life. Trivialities and distractions so wear him down that he is benumbed by the mindless robotics of daily routine.

In such a world, the cultivation of the mind becomes an unlikely ever-receding Shangri-La that forever eludes his grasp. Yearn as he might for those solitary moments that put him in touch with who he actually is, he seems forever doomed in an escapist culture of self-avoidance. And woe unto him who is different in a land where a life of reflection is viewed as abnormal and groupthink the norm!

However, he reaches a point where he no longer is willing to be part of a culture that alienates him from himself. He withdraws as the only way to survive in a world that suffocates him with little chance for independence of mind. He sets aside his evenings to engage in quiet reading to reclaim his soul.

During these hours, he feels enriched, challenged, and even confused by what he discovers - and he has never been happier. Over the next several months, he finds himself both in this world but not of it as he begins to view his society as a clinician would a Petri dish where all sorts of derangements are the order of the day. However, he remains detached in his newfound retreat which for a few brief hours restores him from the madness he daily endures.

At forty, all the questions of life have changed for him and he finds himself less in need of endless repetitions of everyday sameness than for commentary about what it all means. He wants broader horizons, deeper understanding, and universal empathy. He conceives an irrepressible desire for a more intensely lived life and a more conscious existence as he seeks liberation from the tyranny of the immediate and the stultification of mass consciousness.

He recalls from high school those enigmatic words of Samuel Johnson while visiting the lonesome, windswept isle of Iona steeped in historical significance: "Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses, whatever makes the past, the distant, and the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings." Not until now does he begin to understand those words as a cure against what for years has been his fate. It is time to reread Boswell's Life of Johnson.

What has been said about Everyman is even truer when one is still young and the habits of a lifetime are being formed -- especially those of reflection, self-reliance, and independence of mind. The problem today, however, is that among high-school students those habits are fast disappearing. While there are exceptions, too many students in our extrovert culture have lost the ability even to sit still with a book and lose themselves in another time and place.

Drowning in a vortex of gadgets, noise, and distractions, they are unable to commune with the page because they are unable to commune with themselves. In a breakneck-speed culture they have never found the time or quiet to discover the healing of silence or the meaning of things.

The hypnotic allure of their quick-changing world of computer-screen images makes it impossible to slow down and focus on an inner life. Computer-savvy as they may be, they pay a terrible price for being trapped in this dungeon of hyperactivity along with their entire generation. Nor can they help it for this is the only world they have ever known.

The memory of a commonly shared cultural heritage no longer exists, a casualty of a much larger problem of the loss of inherited meaning in the modern world. T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land almost a century ago lamented this moonscape of broken certitudes that litter modern consciousness. Without a sense of the past, the young are helplessly marooned in a one-dimensional visual world without direction or meaning.

In search of an urgent quick-fix of incessant distractions, students are enslaved to a technology that has become their god! Despite this tool's undeniable potential for good, its unintended consequences have become alarmingly apparent to both teachers and parents. The young simply lack the self-control to engage responsibly with technology, which has become an addiction that has taken over their lives.

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 prophetically speaks to this condition of modern America. However, there is a sad irony when students are assigned this novel today. Published almost 65 years ago, it was meant as a wake-up call about where the culture was heading. Now it reads as an elegy of cultural despair about a dying literate culture, so advanced has the sickness become.

Some students even fail to grasp the point of the novel, so ominously have they come to resemble the very characters in this disturbing tale. In this imaginative retelling of Plato's Cave Allegory, we see the struggle toward self-liberation from the idols and myths of his tribe as the hero of this story painfully frees himself from a modern concentration camp.

The reality is that few high-school students read anymore, even in Honors and Advanced Placement courses. It takes too long and is too much trouble, a pandemic trend even among these "better" students, who routinely go online for summaries of novels and plays, bloodless specters of the living, breathing classics themselves. These soulless, uninspired boneyards, the burial grounds for the picked-over carcasses of dumbed-down great fiction, debase to banalities what might otherwise have been a moving reading experience.

Students no longer understand that it's only the emotional involvement with powerful texts that can stir their feelings and even, perhaps, transform their lives. They don't understand that reading only the words of great literature isn't enough; they must be in touch with the feelings behind those words and relive the experiences conveyed by those words for a book to work its magic on them.

A book is a mirror and can reflect only what a reader brings to that mirror. If a reader brings much to that book -- rapt attention, desire to be changed, and willingness to identify emotionally with what is happening, he or she will receive much in return; and, if not, nothing will happen.

In the ancient world, one summoned the spirits from the other world with blood offerings; today, the soul of great fiction can be called forth only by preparing oneself for that reading experience. Without the wish to be changed, thought the ancients, even the gods were helpless to change us. We must first want to be changed, and only then might the gods intervene.

A teacher knows when a novel or play has been read, digested, and has begun to transform a student. One can sense the dissonance such works provoke in the writing. "An axe for the frozen sea within us" was Kafka's metaphor for these life-changing moments, seismic events that can awaken our sleepwalking selves. Instead, when students write their in-class essays, no flashes of lightning illumine their writing, no oracular utterances flow from their pens, only tired clichés expressed without fire.

Introspection is rarely found in their writing; little yearning after subjective vision or trace of any deeply-felt meaning, just the clicking rattle of lifeless old bones. It is clear from their very first sentence that rarely has there been a personal fusion with the story, but only the ennui of stringing together cut-and-paste memories of online study guides read before class.

The young need old-fashioned quiet time to read and reflect, but, most of all, they need exposure to the habit of reading in the home even before entering school. They need role models for understanding what's important in life and what it means to be a reflective person with a life of the mind.

In the past, children could always look to their parents as examples after whom to pattern their lives; parents who were also readers, who would sit down with their children and explain the world to them as parents of past generations always would do -- talking about life and becoming a person.

They knew that there would come a time when they'd no longer be there for them, so they wanted to prepare them for whatever befell them and, most of all, to be true to themselves.

Are there any parents who are still readers out there?

As mentioned before, there are exceptions. A case in point was a student who once came after school to discuss an entry from Blaise Pascal's Pensées and a stanza from Robert Frost's poem "Desert Places":

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me? (#205)

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces between stars -- on stars where no human race is. I have it in me so much nearer home to scare myself with my own desert places.

He had interesting things to say about both passages, was intrigued by their viewpoints, and asked if I could help him determine "which view was right." I asked him whether both views couldn't be right. He said they could, but he wanted to know which one was "objectively" right, because this question had been haunting him for weeks.

I mentioned that we human beings rarely have finality about anything in this world, but could he identify with each viewpoint and grow as a person? Yes, he could and felt that he had.

I then had him role-play that both views were objectively right, then objectively wrong, and, finally, that both were simply a matter of preference that reflected two different psychologies and life experiences.

Then, how would each have reacted to the other's viewpoint and could each have learned something valuable from it?

How might each have reacted to our conversation and what would each have advised him to do?

How would he advise his best friend and a future son or daughter if they asked his question? This went on for an hour and he thanked me for listening to him.

As is evident, I didn't give him "the answer," but helped him toward reaching one. Some answers come by simply outgrowing the question or by seeing it from a larger perspective. He seemed to realize that both saw the universe as they honestly saw it, and that that's all that matters in living one's life.

A gifted 17-year-old? No doubt, and there are students like this in every class, readers who come to school motivated and insatiably curious. A teacher listens and helps them sort themselves out, leaving it to them to find their own answers.

Others want suggestions for reading, so I show them around the school library and point out a dozen plays and novels, and tell them why they should read them as they scribble down notes. And when they've read them, I can give them more titles.

All the advice these students need is to keep doing what they've always been doing for it's obviously working, keep themselves open to everything, refuse to be narrowed, and never to be discouraged by a culture that doesn't value the mind.

Part of this essay is a revised version of an article that appeared in the Times of Trenton in October of 2013.