Busyness

I am on holiday for a few days, so I am not busy.

But the school is. OISE, like every other language school in the UK, swells in the summer to bursting point.

It makes little difference to the students on the whole, or to the teachers. A class size is a class size. Teachers work longer hours (and it is hot), but once you are in a class everything looks more or less the same. There may be longer queues for the coffee machine, the photocopier may break down with greater regularity, and the administrative staff might be running around a bit more than usual (this could be an understatement); but the school is recognisably the school.

In subtler ways, however, the character of the place and the tenor of its life change considerably. Language learning is often characterised, at its best, by slowness, and non-direction. If you have the time or the appropriate mental state to dwell on detail for its own sake, or to play around with language, without the need constantly to orientate yourself to a goal – an exam, a levelling-up, a certificate – you are probably doing the right thing. For much of the year, if long-term slowness is your thing, OISE is an accommodating environment.

Not that there aren’t always a few business people whizzing through. Business, of course, makes other demands. Productivity in all things is paramount, and productivity is improved by efficiency and dereliction. You have to know what to ignore, what not to worry about; you have to see clearly which are secondary problems and allot resources accordingly. You have to be able to quantify something if you are to understand it.

Business works, in the end; and all that fretting about productivity probably pays off at some level. But in the pre-capitalist world, medieval philosophers identified as a sub-set of idleness a certain sort of relentless, purposeless busyness, and in the same way the business of business generates a lot of smoke and noise, evidence of the friction of activity rather than the engagement of action.

brue4We occasionally express our perception of this as the 80:20 rule. Perhaps for that reason it is interesting to see that, whether the school is ostensibly busy or not, many of its inhabitants are clearly, one way or another, having a holiday from themselves, and locating in the process that odd state of productivity without busyness.

But it is easy to sound like a Zen master when you are on holiday and others are not, so I’d better shut up.

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