Friday, August 29, 2008

On idleness

Idleness is the enemy of the soul. And therefore, at fixed times, the brothers ought to be occupied in manual labor; and again, at fixed times, in sacred reading. ... there shall certainly be appointed one or two elders, who shall go round the monastery at the hours in which the brothers are engaged in reading, and see to it that no troublesome brother chance to be found who is open to idleness and trifling....

The Rule of St. Benedict, ca. 530, Medieval Sourcebook

Discussions of the soul in any context can be dicey, and discussing it as a science teacher in a public school could be grounds for dismissal, and understandably so.

(I suppose you might live on the edge by discussing if there's any empirical evidence supporting the myth that a soul weighs 21 grams, but I would save that for college sophomores in a coffee shop chat.)

So this post is not about souls.

It's about idleness.

Science requires reflection: "free" time, wandering thoughts, curiosity.

Reflection does not, of course, necessarily lead to science, but I'd wager that the Benedictine order recognized it could lead to problems (other than hirsute palms and astigmatism). Free time, wandering thoughts, and curiosity can be disastrous in a classroom of humans metamorphosing into their adult forms.

Teaching content is easy to a docile crowd. Here's the curriculum, here's the test. Do well often enough, and you will be successful.

A huge chunk of the Teaching for Dummies section at Barnes and Noble is dedicated to tips on inducing docility in students. /me waves to Mr. Wong. And I've eagerly read just about all of them.

Some of us are even coarse enough to articulate the threat:

You need your diploma to get a job so you don't starve.
(Make sure you sneer contemptuously when you spit this out,
and make sure you don't add voice to its silent ending " ungrateful bastards.")

The bell rings. 48 minutes later, it will ring again. Little time for idleness.

I'm the elder in the classroom. I scan for idleness and trifling. There's not a whole lot of wiggle room.

Still, if one of my students (substitute "wackadoodle" for "troublesome brother") should happen to stumble on a spark that threatens order, and if that spark has a real chance at lighting a relevant fire in the classroom, I've got a canister of propane sitting on the desk.

The picture on the bottom left is from the New York Times, which did, indeed, tackle science and the soul.

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