Teaching Students to Waste Time
By RJ Snell, July 21, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?

A while back I wrote a piece at First Principles on education and moral imagination in which I included a brief defense on wasting time well. I claimed:

. . .  efficiency and busyness are values of the machine and a machine age, and they grind imagination into the imagination of bolts and pulleys, computing and spitting out. Instead, refuse the tyranny of instrumental reason and learn to waste time well. Go for a walk in the woods. Tell some jokes. Explore a used bookstore. Haunt a church. Idle a day away staring at beautiful things in boutiques you cannot afford to go into—my own preference is for paper stores. . . .

The delightful Alain de Botton writes at City Journal in praise of distraction, for "[t]he past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible."

The obsession for current events, for remaining current, for the new and interesting, leaves us in a state of dissolution, but "[o]ur minds, no less than our bodies, require periods of fasting."

I find myself in a catch-22 sometimes, for my students are inextricably caught in a system of more, more, faster, faster and I want to encourage them to wasting time well (one might call that leisure.) But the tendency is not for leisure but for entertainment, certainly not towards the craft of doing work well and carefully, so I tend to pile work on them in hopes that the need to read lots of Augustine or Aquinas will keep them from sheer distraction.

Any ideas on teaching the art of wasting time the way free people do this?




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Lee Trepanier on Jul 24, 2010 at 6:22 am

I don't think it is so much wasting time as setting aside time for contemplation or slow reading. There is a wonderful article about the art of slow reading at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/15/slow-reading

Anonymous on Jul 27, 2010 at 11:53 am

One of the things I emphasize to students in my architectural history classes is my desire that they start looking at the built environment around them instead of obliviously moving through buildings and spaces without thinking about what they see. Being at Princeton reinforced this idea to me; Princeton's campus architecture certainly holds a great deal of meaning, and it's important to examine the buildings leisurely. A student once told me that after taking my "Architecture of Boston" class, he could not stop looking at buildings and analyzing architectural styles. This was a great compliment!

Korey D. Maas on Sep 17, 2010 at 10:14 am

I've been wasting so much time lately, that I've come to this post relatively late. But I did want to comment because I've been happy to observe, and participate in, what I'd consider some very edifying time-wasting around the "smoking table" on my own campus. Our few faculty who still allow themselves the indulgence of tobacco will occasionally retreat to said table with a cup of coffee and some too-long neglected reading. More often than not, though, colleagues will already be present and so the reading is further neglected in favor of conversation. And though no sign is posted to prohibit it, it is generally understood that "business" is to be avoided; so the table-talk less resembles a faculty senate meeting than a generationally misplaced (and perhaps somewhat idealized) dormitory bull session. The conversation might revolve around questions such as: Virgil or Vergil? Iliad or Odyssey? What's the most important year in the last century? Who are the two most influential western figures between Constantine and Charlemagne? It's not exactly a Harlem barbershop, but it has something of the flavor. And judging by the number of undergrads who regularly pause to join their professors in such time wasting, even they find it's not a bad flavor.

about the author

R. J. Snell
R. J. Snell

Associate Professor and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University outside of Philadelphia. Ph.D. from Marquette, MA from Boston College and BSc. from Liberty University.

I work broadly in the history of philosophy, but especially Thomism in conjunction with contemporary thought. My first book argues for a Thomist, Bernard Lonergan, against the skepticism of Richard Rorty.

Starting to do more work on the natural law and especially the epistemology of apprehending the good.