I was pleased to read a couple of days ago (here) that Cardinal Richelieu amused himself in his off-hours by jumping up and down in competition with his servant, and that the great philosopher Spinoza, after a long day at the coal face of rationalist philosophy, delighted in making spiders fight one another. Pleased, because I often think the great goal of the Western Civilisations – that we should all maximise our productivity in the service of perpetual growth – would be better served were we to spend a little more time looking out of the window, either literally or figuratively.I had a student once, a lawyer nearing retirement who worked for a large industrial corporation, who told me that the young (by which I took him to mean anyone under about 45 years of age), whatever their virtues of energy and enthusiasm, did not know how to sit and think. Proper work, he said, was like a fruit – a small hard stone of productivity buried in a soft mass of contemplation.
While his metaphor admittedly makes intellectual activity sound a little too much like a disease of the gall-bladder, it is true, I think, that the relationship between idleness and productive employment is a mutually-informing one.
I do not know how all this would translate into English lessons in such a rigorous outfit as OISE. We cannot just sit and smile benignly at our students while they look out of the window, contemplating the fruits of labour. Quite apart from the fact that there are various sorts of work, some being more susceptible to a steady drip of application than others, it is also true that doing is very often a form of thinking – the artist thinks with the brush in hand, the stone mason with his hands on the stone, the financier with the spreadsheet on the desktop, and the English teacher with his or her mouth open in front of a whiteboard.
That said, a little bit of silence in the classroom is nothing to be afraid of; neither is the odd digression. It is inevitably in the interstices of your lesson plan (explicit or otherwise) that the real work gets done.