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    Leisure: The Basis of Culture {Chapter 2}

    September 29, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    Obama says American kids spend too little time in school, putting them at a disadvantage with other students around the globe.

    “Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas,” the president said earlier this year. “Not with Malia and Sasha, not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom.”


    While it is true that kids in many other countries have more school days, it’s not true they all spend more time in school.

    Kids in the U.S. spend more hours in school {1,146 instructional hours per year} than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests — Singapore {903}, Taiwan {1,050}, Japan {1,005} and Hong Kong {1,013}. That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years {190 to 201 days} than does the U.S. {180 days}.

    –More school: Obama would curtail summer vacation {Yahoo News source link no longer available}

    Pieper says that the idea that knowledge and knowing are something a person works for is a thoroughly modern one. He’s right that we view it this way. We tell our kids to work hard when they begin their school days, regardless of their educational setting. When they aren’t “getting it,” we prescribe…more work…just like President Obama is doing when he wants to not only extend the number of days in school, but also the number of hours in a school day.

    If our kids aren’t “getting it,” so the thinking goes, they must not be working hard enough, or long enough. And since we live in an era of chronological snobbery, we do not feel the need to look back and see that, in history, children seemed to learn just fine when they spent far less time in the classroom.

    When our children merely work at their learning they can:

    • Memorize math facts without understanding the concepts
    • Know the names and dates of famous people without comprehending that these were real people with real lives, or that these people had any real significance
    • Memorize a sampling of titles and summaries of Great Books without ever turning the actual pages and reading the actual words {I actually met a person who endorsed this method in order to gain a–in my opinion, completely superficial–level of cultural understanding}

    In other words, if we aren’t careful, we are encouraging knowledge without understanding. If “knowledge is power” then knowledge without understanding is asking for immeasurable trouble.

    My Son in the Garden

    Recently, I shared a story of harvesting sunflower seeds with my older son. I have still been thinking about that day, and about how I could, if I wanted to {which I don’t}, remind him all day about Bible verses that tell him that the wicked are like chaff. Then, I could explain to him what chaff is, or maybe show him a YouTube video that explains it to him for me. And I could drill him off and on: “What are the wicked like, son?”

    And he would “know” that the wicked are like chaff.

    But it would be nothing like that day in the sun, when he connected, in a moment, all of a sudden, what chaff is like, and that the wicked are like it.

    This sort of knowledge requires moments of quiet. It does not require sloth {for the foundation for such a connection was a pursuit of knowledge, in this case in the form of reading our Bible and talking about it}, but it does require that nebulous concept of leisure that we are getting at, where we leave off work and sail into knowing on pleasurable seas, often at unexpected times, such as when we are folding laundry.

    This lightning-like connecting in the brain and in the soul, where the whole picture comes together in a flash, and the knowledge that, yes, we worked for, is transformed into understanding, is nothing less than revelation. Scripture says that these things are good things which come from the LORD.

    They are gifts.

    Knowing Without Knowing

    There is a really interesting passage in Isaiah 44 about worthless men who make idols. These men take a piece of wood. With half of it, they make a fire and cook bread and meat to eat, and then they warm themselves with its heat. With the other half, they carve an idol and worship it. Nothing about this seems ridiculous to these men.

    Here is what the Scripture then says:

    They do not know nor understand;
    For He has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see,
    And their hearts, so that they cannot understand.

    This is the opposite concept. God has chosen, in this situation not to reveal knowledge. So we have a case where someone does not know something because they have not received the gift of knowing it.

    Here is where I ask myself some questions: Why does the concept of knowledge as revelation bother me? Is it that I have reserved revelation for the prophets of the past? Is it that I am uncomfortable with a sovereign God getting into my mind and being in charge of what I really know or don’t know? Do I find knowledge-as-work appealing because this lets me be in control?

    There is something akin to works-righteousness in the modern way, something that says that if I work harder than you, I will be better than you.

    Knowledge as a Gift

    Pieper says that this doesn’t mean that we do not work at all, but rather that we recognize that “there is something else in it, and something essential to it, that is not work.” In other words, part of it is a gift. What of the effort? Pieper says that in this situation, when we are pursuing true knowing {by which I mean understanding}, “the effort would not be the cause but rather a necessary condition for it.”

    When math clicks in our brains for the very first time, this is a grace of God, not a mere human accomplishment. Remember, the world is alive, teeming with Grace. Pieper affirms this when he writes:

    We should consider for a moment how much the Christian understanding of life is based on the reality of “Grace”; let us also recall that the Holy Spirit Himself is called “Gift”; that the greatest Christian teachers have said that the Justice of God is based on Love; that something given, something free of all debt, something undeserved, something not-achieved–is presumed in everything achieved or laid claim to; that what is first is always something received–if we keep all this before our eyes, we can see the abyss that separates this other attitude [of knowledge-as-mere-work] from the inheritance of Christian Europe.

    If knowledge is a gift, this entirely and completely changes the way that we do school, which is to say the way that we pursue knowledge and understanding. This might include:

    • Not only beginning the day with prayer, but also bathing difficulties with prayer. If grammar is a mountain we cannot climb alone, we pray for assistance, and look for God’s help as we gather our tools and make the attempt.
    • We, as teachers, pray for our students, realizing they learn not so much from us as from the Lord Himself.
    • Humility becomes a foundational attitude of learning. We realize that we do not know because we are great, but because God is great.
    • Likewise, gratitude becomes our response for the new things we have learned, for they were not something we attained on our own, but rather something which was given to us.
    • We understand the importance of giving our children {and ourselves} quiet time. This doesn’t mean that they do nothing. For instance, I think that one of the most contemplative times of day for my oldest are when he goes out, before seven in the morning, breathes the cool, crisp air, feeds the ducks, gathers eggs, and hand-waters his plants which need extra care. But there is a difference between chores which can be done by the body while the mind chews the intellectual cud, and creating an environment of diversion so that the child never “gets bored.”

      Think about it. If we divert a river, we are keeping it from its natural course. If we divert a child’s attention, we are not doing that child any favors. Instead, we are keeping him from pursuing his thoughts along their natural course, to their logical end, and his intellectual and spiritual life will grow into nothing but a collection of unfinished business.

    • We become able to see the potential of each student, and look for knowledge in unlikely places. If knowledge and understanding are gifts, who is to say that the child with the highest IQ is the greatest in the kingdom? God delights in making wise the simple. No one is too stupid to make introducing great thoughts to them a waste of time.
    • We consider what we do to not be work per se, but rather an act of seeking or pursuing. We are told, for instance, that those who seek the LORD understand all things, and if we have this sort of understanding, knowledge actually comes quite easy. Scripture tells us that if we are lacking in wisdom, all we have to do is ask God.

    Unfinished Business

    There are two other issues with Pieper I would like to spend time pondering, but I’ll have to do it another time because I need to begin our school day leisure time. The issues are: {1} the possibility that some of Pieper’s negative comments about work, along with his push for the vita contemplativa are actually a form of gnosticism {I say this knowing I could be wrong because Pieper is writing in an Industrial culture, which is a different animal from what is typically seen upon the earth}, and {2} the idea that the greatest virtue is effortless, that working at something is fine as far as it goes, but “if the love were so great, as completely to remove all the difficulty–that would be a still greater love.” My mind is waking up to the connection between effortless love and effortless learning.

    For More…

    This book club is hosted by Cindy at Ordo Amoris, and there are more entries linked to her site.
    If you want to read along for free, this book is available online as a download.

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  • Reply Mystie September 30, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Right. The student who pursues battle history out of love still gets the useful information, but the one coming at it merely for tips will not get the love or the *education*.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts September 30, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    Mrs. H,

    Welcome! I am glad you are reading along.


    I am going to buy you a soapbox for Christmas, you see if I don’t.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts September 30, 2009 at 6:05 pm


    I was going to leave this comment on your blog, but since I am managing comments over here right now (this whole week is turning into Stomach Flu Break–the children can’t seem to handle more than an hour of reading before someone begins to cry).

    Anyhow, I loved your examples, where two people can do the exact same thing and yet one can be leisurely and one not. Whereas I focused more on times of pause and the revelatory nature of knowledge, you analyzed the concept of leisurely work What I noticed in your examples is that the difference seems to be…love.

    In my post, I quoted from James 1, where we learn that God gives us wisdom when we ask for it. But I think James can tie this together for us again in 4:3 when it is said that we ask, but we do not receive, and the reason we do not receive is because we asked with wrong motives.

    I would argue in your examples that only the student motivated by love ends up with real knowledge. The other guy just got a collection of tips. The general may learn how to “do battle,” but he certainly didn’t learn that the LORD is He who grants victory.

    So our motives in learning can be to consume and use, or to receive and be thankful, and the results are two very different types of people.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts September 30, 2009 at 5:56 pm


    When I was listening to Andrew Kern’s talk on Dewey, Darwin and Descartes last night, I realized why I am struggling with the work/leisure concepts. He said that Dewey caused the modern mind to be extremely dichotomous (I think I spelled that wrong) and so we hear leisure as No Work and work as No Leisure (which was what the Germans were actually trying to do, and this makes sense since their culture was a logical outcome of modernism and industrialism), as if they were mutually exclusive, which they aren’t

    Even though my examples, and even better, Mystie’s examples, showed work and leisure in a harmonious marriage, when we start talking about it abstractly, my tendency is to again set them up against each other. I think I will just need to discipline my mind until it is natural for me to expect their coexistence.

    When I think about it, leisure should be dichotomous with sloth rather than work…

  • Reply sara September 30, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    ugh. That sounds abrupt and smug. English is my first language – I should be better at this. My excuse is that I try to type while nursing a baby. How’s that for leisure? 🙂

    Anyway, your post here speaks into my life and shed some light on this difficult (for me) book.

  • Reply sara September 30, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    I saw many of these points while reading the chapter but was not able to apply them as you have. this was very helpful to me.

  • Reply Anonymous September 30, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    As far as Obama is concerned, his motivation for doing this is probably not about learning any more than the GM bailout was about manufacturing cars. It is normally about political payoff to his friends. If GM would have went bankrupt the union pension and health benefits would have been at risk. So who benefits if teachers must have longer school years. Teachers unions, because I think most people realize that good teachers work very hard and with time spent on work outside the classroom probably are not going to easily absorb these extra burdens without more money or more help. In some way we will justify hiring more teachers which will mean more union dues and like believers who will mainly vote democrat. Remember he doesn’t want a smarter electorate just followers.

    I am sorry Brandy but I saw a soapbox and had to stand on it.

  • Reply Mrs. H September 30, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Wonderful post. Thanks for your insights! I am quietly reading along on my own and enjoying everyone’s comments.

  • Reply Mystie September 29, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    Beautiful, Brandy.

    Funny how all our examples of leisure promoting connections and thinking take place during productive yet leisurely work.

    “There is something akin to works-righteousness in the modern way, something that says that if I work harder than you, I will be better than you.”

    That is a great insight! And thank you for your applications; they are excellent.

    It seems like the effortless love and effortless learning he is talking about is still the *product* of a lot of effort. We can’t simply *be* and expect good to come. He says the ground work is necessary and difficult, but it’s a short blip in the chapter, whereas I think that’s what needs to be developed before expanding on effortless visions and charity.

  • Reply Dominion Family September 29, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    You did a great job of hitting some points I wanted to discuss. I also felt that reading what he said about love was an epiphany me for me. Now if I could just hold onto it.

    The more I read the more comfortable I am with what Pieper is saying. I understand what you are saying about gnosticism but I don’t think Pieper is promoting just that one kind of knowledge, rather he is promoting the idea of not leaving out that sort of knowledge.

    Your tie-in to Obama is spot-on and scary.

    This topic is sooooo big, it is hard to narrow things done in the discussion. It would be fun to just sit in a room with everyone for several hours talking through it.

  • Reply Dana September 29, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    Excellent, Brandy!

    Your synopsis custom fits this complex concept to the day-to-day tasks of learning.

    Your comments would relief frustration, if I were having trouble with a student/child.

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