Time to eat: school lunch and the loss of leisure in education.

Author:Smilie, Kipton D.
Position:Essay
 
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It is the time you have wasted with your rose that makes your rose so important.

--The Little Prince

[The school cafeteria] reminded me of pictures of prison dining rooms that I have seen on television, but without the enforced silence of the penal setting.

--Janet Poppendieck (2010)

In her School Lunch Politics Susan Levine (2010) reminds us that lunch "has become the daily institutional meal, and more than half of the nation's population now eats the noon meal- at work, at school, in a hospital, prison, or in the Army" (p. 165). Common sense should tell us that such an institutionalization carries meanings well beyond the food being consumed. Nowhere are these meanings more apparent than in the school cafeteria during lunch. Recent school lunch reforms center upon the nutritional components of the food students are served in our schools, particularly in the midst of our current child obesity epidemic. First Lady Michelle Obama has spearheaded action in this regard. School lunches, too, have been marked by questions of racial and economic equality since their inception in the early decades of the 20th century. As a result, Levine contends that "School cafeterias became racially and economically segregated zones" (p. 156). Questions of who qualifies for free and reduced lunch, along with the stigmas attached to such labels, abound as well. Such concerns are, of course, vital to the physical, emotional, and social well-being of our students at the beginning of the 21st-century. School lunch can, perhaps, serve as a means for alleviating these far-reaching problems.

But how we eat our school lunch tells us much about ourselves too. The manner in which we consume a school lunch serves as a mirror for our most fundamental beliefs and assumptions about our educational system: how, what, and why we teach students in the first place. The way the school cafeteria operates stems from how the classroom operates, from how the marketplace operates, and from how our lives are ordered. In other words, the values on display in the school cafeteria during lunch are inter-connected with realms well beyond the lunch tray. What we find lacking in the school cafeteria at lunch is also disappearing from these larger realms: leisure. While the loss of leisure in the school cafeteria sounds harmless and frivolous enough (after all, how leisurely and idle do we really want the school day to be), its disappearance presents a deeper philosophical dilemma. The loss of leisure in the school cafeteria mirrors its loss in the classroom, the marketplace, and our lives. The school cafeteria should serve as the last bastion of the classical not ion of leisure in schools, and its loss reflects a deeper philosophical loss in our quest for educating students. Fortunately, though, the school cafeteria at lunch provides the simplest and most appropriate venue for leisure to enter the classroom and beyond, but such a change requires a shift in our 21st century perspectives.

Leisurely Lunch

Leisure's entry into schools actually turns out to be a re-entry, as schooling is inextricably linked with leisure. Josef Pieper (1954) reminds us that our word "school" is ultimately derived from the Greek and Latin words iskole and scola) meaning "leisure." "The word used to designate the place where we educate and teach," Pieper explains, "is derived from a word which means 'leisure.' 'School' does not, properly speaking, mean school, but leisure" (p. 2). Pieper makes such a declaration in his Leisure: The Basis of Culture, published in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Within this context, Pieper apologizes for exploring such a seemingly lighthearted topic as the world is busily rebuilding. But Pieper contends that such a rebuilding requires a philosophical choice: what will be the philosophical foundation of our culture? If the West is going to rebuild following classical precepts, then leisure must occupy a fundamental place. Leisure's meaning goes well beyond the sense of free time; in fact, for Pieper, leisure serves as a mindset or a way of life. Leisure is an approach to how we interpret the world.

Leisure ultimately influences how we go about knowing. Pieper ex plains that the ancients divided knowledge into two categories: ratio and intellectus. Ratio was the type of knowledge we are most accustomed to (and comfortable with) today: "the power of discursive, logical thought, of searching and of examination, of abstraction, of definition and drawing conclusions" (p. 9). Because it is the most tangible, and thus the most measurable, ratio is the type of knowledge we most value in our schools. In fact, in our era of high-stakes testing, ratio often stands alone. But the ancients believed that another path to knowing was both necessary and complementary, that of intellectus. Intellectus is closely related to "contemplation," "that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye" (p. 9). The mind is completely receptive in this mode. Before we begin measuring, searching, and examining (as in ratio), the mind is able to visualize an object in its entirety. As Pieper explains, we are able to "participate" in this "non-discursive vision, which is the capacity to apprehend the spiritual in the same manner that our eye apprehends light or our ear sound" (p. 10). We can consider the object in its entirety, all before we start dissecting it into parts. When we look at a rose, for example, before we begin "to count, to measure and to weigh it up," we first "open [our] eyes receptively" to the rose. The rose's image is then able to "enter into us, so to speak, without calling for any effort or strain on our part to possess" it (p. 7). Both ways of knowing, though, were needed: "The mode of discursive thought is accompanied and impregnated by an effortless awareness, the contemplative vision of intellectus, which is not active but passive, or rather receptive, the activity of the soul in which it conceives that which it sees" (p. 9). Of course, as Pieper points out, we tend not to trust any gifts that come without effort and strain. Only through work can we properly achieve rewards. This is one reason why ratio serves as our primary mode of learning in school.

Perhaps more importantly, this is why we have severed school's roots in leisure. Intellectus is synonymous with contemplation, time and space in which to consider ideas. Often this takes on a playful form. Because contemplation serves as its own end, ideas can be entertained, compared, forgotten, rejected, and reconsidered. Whereas we have to be active in ratio while seeking a tangible, measurable answer, intellectus allows us to be receptive, as in receiving a gift. The mind is active in play. Leisure allows for time and space for this contemplation. We are then allowed to "pierce the dome" of everyday existence (p. 71). Pieper uses this term to signify those moments in life when leisure and contemplation are best able to thrive. We have time and space in which to break away, at least mentally, from the workaday world and enter into contemplation. Because we are often much too busy to stop on our own, many times leisure is "imposed" on us. Encountering death stops us and allows for reflection. The same goes for birth; as we hold a newborn, we find ourselves asking what our own lives are all about. Pieper mentions that something as simple as a poem or seeing a striking face allows for these moments (p. 71). The experience brings us away from the hustle and bustle of the world, and we can contemplate on the higher meanings and deeper questions of life. These moments are fleeting of course, as we eventually have to get back to work. But those moments provide some of the most poignant insights that inform our lives. Pieper explains that we also "pierce the dome" on two other distinct occasions: in school and at the feast. This is why school lunch serves as such an integral conduit to our classical roots of leisure.

One reason school has lost its leisurely roots is that the liberal notion of education has been slowly eroded. A liberal education purports no utilitarian ends. In a sense, it is not useful. We do not seek a liberal education to do something else; it is good in and of itself. This idea informs the classical notions of leisure and contemplation. Poets, for example, do not serve a purpose beyond the poetry itself; poets are not functionary. They do not fit into a five-year plan (p. 19). The ends of a liberal education and vocational training, of course, have been in tension since at least Plato's time (Rice & Smilie, forthcoming). At the beginning of the 21st...

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