Leisure in the School Day and Academic Calendar

About a decade ago, I did something remarkable – at least it seemed remarkable at the time: I threw out my calendar. It was not frenzy or anti-structural zeal that drove me to the recycle bin; I finally made the plunge to an exclusively electronic calendar. This was a practical move, but it gave me one more reason to stare into my little magical box.  The frustration of being even more beholden to my phone reminds me of one of the great delusions of our age: better technology will provide greater fulfillment in life. We can certainly accomplish tasks more quickly and more safely than we used to. We have access to an unprecedented amount of information and can do things we never before thought possible. From safer vehicles to faster air travel to organ transplants to internet and smart phones, we do, as Sir Francis Bacon promised, live like kings in comparison to our ancestors. We should celebrate each achievement, but we should not be tempted to think that improved technology remedies tedium or necessarily leads to a life more full of meaning. A longer, less strenuous existence is no assurance of a more satisfied life…We want our students to begin to discern that truth.

The fundamental concerns that underlie today’s headlines – questions about suffering, disagreements over law and government, and attempts at peace – have been asked for millennia. Man’s search for meaning–as Victor Frankl labeled it–persists. We can easily confuse the search for meaning with something else: the dogged pursuit for ever-greater efficiency and accumulation of information. These are important, but they are not the keys to unlocking a meaningful life. What we seek and what we offer at Great Hearts is an opportunity to discover more about human advancements without losing sight of the human quest. The dual inquiry into the nature of things and the nature of man is at the heart of what we pursue each day. In this pursuit we yearn to drink deeply from the well of the past as we consider the future and our place in it. As far as this relates to the craving for more screen time, we hope our community heeds the advice of Dougald Hine, encouraging us all to “find the corners of our lives in which we can unplug, the days on which it is possible to refuse the urgency of the inbox, the activities that will not be rushed. Switch off the infinity machine, not forever, nor because there is anything bad about it, but out of recognition of our own finitude.”[i]

At Great Hearts we celebrate the ever-present mandate to leave the phone on the desk, walk down the hall, and along with colleagues and students enter the delightful worlds of Coulomb’s Law, Caravaggio, and Crime and Punishment. It is this shared exploration – with those in the classroom and those from the past – that helps to lighten the busyness so often burdening our days.

While we still rely on the phrase “9 to 5” to describe a certain type of work schedule, I know very few people who actually work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The most significant reason is the demand for ever-more productivity. As a result, adults either spend more time at the office or work comes home with them, or more likely still is always with them on their phones. This shift – to our job monopolizing our time – is based on the myth that more time working yields greater productivity.  Studies going as far back as the founding of Ford Motor Company continue to confirm that working more than 60 hours per week does not increase productivity. In fact, the “sweet spot” for greatest productivity per hour is the 40-hour work week.[ii] Yet, despite the sundry warnings from physicians and psychologists about the deleterious effects of stress, we continue to overwork. In an effort to address this reality I once and perhaps a bit ironically, shared the following article excerpt with faculty during an after-hours meeting:

The grown-up world has a tendency to strip things of their magic a bit, but the snow day still served as a wonderful stop sign from the heavens for myopic, overworked adults. What else could grind to a halt, even temporarily, the exhausting, striving adult world of meetings and reports and office memos? What else could not only suggest to the workaholic that he take a day off, but force him to because the roads were too icy, the subways all closed? What else could unite father and son on a sled on a snowy hill in the middle of a weekday? In a world that forces us to inhabit our roles as workers ever more intimately […] snow days were one of the few remaining excuses not to be a worker for a little while. [iii]

What’s troubling about the fading of the “snow-day magic” is that it ever had to exist in the first place. Adults who require “an act of God” to engage in humanizing leisure have ultimately built a culture of overwork that’s taken as the norm, especially by the children who were raised in it. Productivity is certainly important, but it’s not the end for which we aim. This applies to our schools as well: It is vital that students take their schoolwork seriously and that they see their classes as a path on which they will gain greater understanding about themselves and the world. Yet, however necessary and humane our classes may be, they are not sufficient for a full life.  We all need time off from our ordinary routine. Children need a portion of their time that is devoted to something restorative lest they fall prey to the notion that they are reducible to their schoolwork – wonderful work though it may be.  This is one of the principles behind Great Hearts’ daily Lunch-Lyceum hour and the monthly R & R weekend: opportunity for non-compulsory recreation, laughter, conversation, and relaxation. This restoration is not only a needful thing for students but for adults as well. It is my hope that by intentionally building into our day and week a “time out”, we will find a creative and restorative balance to our lives and need not hold out for the nostalgia of a snow day – a day which for most Great Hearts Arizona students has never existed at all.

Brandon Crowe is Superintendent of Great Hearts Arizona. He joined Great Hearts over 17 years ago—first as a teacher—after completing a graduate degree in Religious History at Arizona State University. He resides in Peoria, Arizona with his wife and four children.


[i] http://aeon.co/magazine/technology/the-problem-with-too-much-information/

[ii] The Western Heritage, Seventh Edition p.751; http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/08/where-the-five-day-workweek-came-from/378870/

[iii] http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/01/adult-snow-day-is-dying-and-thats-sad.html


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