The idleness of school

It’s fair to say that school is not a word or a place we associate with pleasure, leisure or spare time. At best, school is a place where one occasionally has fun. At worst, school can be a living hell, as too many writers have pointed out in their memoires. That school is not a place of recreation is something we should blame the Romans for.

Like all great ideas in history, school started as a brilliant concept but soon ended up devouring itself. The word ‘school’ comes from Latin, and that is why it is a bad word. The Latin word ‘schola’ designated the school as we know it, as an idea, place or process, All its cognates, scholasticus, scholaris, scholium, etc, are still recognisable in English and other European languages. Not skoll, though. The Romans had imported the word from the Greeks, who had already developed it into a school word. The Ancient Greek word scholè is one of those things which gets corrupted as soon as it becomes institutionalised, like a meeting between friends which in due course turns into a committee-run organisation. It is refreshing to think that originally scholè had nothing to do with schools. It simply referred to one of the two fundamental human times. The time spent attending to the necessities of life, in particular work and biological needs, was captured by the word ascholè, the a- modifying the initial scholè, which described leisure, the time spent on non-essential activities. Scholè is the surplus of human output, the top of the pyramid, the purely human capacity to devote resources to contingencies. When scholè-minded individuals got together to engage in leisurely conversation, they founded the first school. The Romans inherited the schola emptied of the otium as the Greeks had understood it. Each culture just added more tedium to the concept, to the point that we would never have imagined that at its root, school was a space for pleasurable self-growth, where the human spirit could flow unimpeded.

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