Seneca, “idle busyness,” and relevance

How relevant is “relevance” to good curriculum?

Earlier this term, I had my tenth-grade students read Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s letter “On the Shortness of Life” (De brevitate vitae). The letter contains the phrase desidiosa occupatio, which could be translated as “idle occupation” or “idle busyness.” The students seized on this phrase and cited it frequently.

In this letter to Paulinus (presumably his father-in-law, who oversaw Rome’s grain supply and was old enough to retire), Seneca argues against trivial occupations and for the study of philosophy. People complain that life is short, says Seneca, but it is actually long. People make it short by wasting it. He gives the example of the man getting a haircut:

Tell me, would you say that those men are at leisure who pass many hours at the barber’s while they are being stripped of whatever grew out the night before? while a solemn debate is held over each separate hair? while either disarranged locks are restored to their place or thinning ones drawn from this side and that toward the forehead? How angry they get if the barber has been a bit too careless, just as if he were shearing a real man! How they flare up if any of their mane is lopped off, if any of it lies out of order, if it does not all fall into its proper ringlets! Who of these would not rather have the state disordered than his hair? Who is not more concerned to have his head trim rather than safe? Who would not rather be well barbered than upright?

Seneca provides many more examples of “idle busyness”—leaders embroiled in battles and public affairs; men concerned with the ornamentation of their lives rather than the essence; and, worst of all, people who give themselves over to wine and lust. All of these people, in occupying themselves with many things, fail to accomplish anything of importance, as true accomplishment requires dedication and focus.

Finally, everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is busied with many things—eloquence cannot, nor the liberal studies—since the mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.

What way of life, according to Seneca, allows for dedication to the important things? The immersion in philosophical works, or works of wisdom (sapientia).

Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only. They annex ever age to their own; all the years that have gone ore them are an addition to their store. Unless we are most ungrateful, all those men, glorious fashioners of holy thoughts, were born for us; for us they have prepared a way of life. By other men’s labours we are led to the sight of things most beautiful that have been wrested from darkness and brought into light; from no age are we shut out, we have access to all ages, and if it is our wish, by greatness of mind, to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness, there is a great stretch of time through which we may roam.

My students said that they could relate it to their lives; they cited Facebook, TV, and other kinds of “idle busyness.” One student told me that this letter inspired her to change her priorities. Now, this sort of “relating,” while in many ways illuminating, has its drawbacks; students might overlook parts of the letter that don’t quite mesh with their understanding. Take this, for instance:

And what of those who are engaged in composing, hearing, and learning songs, while they twist the voice, whose best and simplest movement Nature designed to be straightforward, into the meanderings of some indolent tune, who are always snapping their fingers as they beat time to some song they have in their head, who are overheard humming a tune when they have been summoned to serious, often even melancholy, matters? These have not leisure, but idle occupation.

I, for one, take exception to this, and that is part of the point of reading. If Seneca’s points were exactly my own, then I would learn nothing from his letter. What is wrong with snapping your fingers to some tune, I ask, if that is what you love to do? But Seneca is not talking about what you love to do. He is not saying, “do what matters to you.” Though the letter is to one person, and therefore not framed as universal advice, Seneca unequivocally ranks some activities above others. That stumbling point (for many a modern reader) makes the letter more difficult and in some ways more interesting.

What does that say about “relevance?” Many educators insist that a curriculum should reflect the students’ own experience and cultural backgrounds, at least in part. Now, it’s easy to scoff at this, but it isn’t entirely wrong. It’s just a limited version of a truth. What’s most important is that students find meaning in subject matter (or lack of meaning, if that is its point). This meaning might not apply to their lives, at least not directly. It may not translate easily or completely into everyday language. It certainly doesn’t have to boil down to a maxim or moral. Meaning is the sense or significance of something.

Now, sometimes the meaning is immediate. You read a story and recognize the situation. You may even recognize the characters right away. The life of the story seems close to your own life. In other cases, the meaning doesn’t come for a while. You struggle a bit with the language and ideas. But eventually something comes clear, and with time, still more.

While students may enjoy “relating” to subject matter, they must learn to grapple with difficult and unfamiliar things. The relating may lead to the grappling but doesn’t do so automatically.  Nor is the former a prerequisite for the latter. The former does not require much education; the latter does. Doesn’t it follow, then, that schools should focus on taking students to meaning, not on making things immediately relevant?

Comments

  1. dangermom says:

    Interesting thoughts! I must say I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to the insistence on relevance. Some immediate relevance is nice, but to my mind, education is supposed to introduce the student to new and broader horizons. It should mostly make the student relevant to the world, not the other way around–a young kid is relevant to very little!

    I recently heard a podcast in which the speaker argued against discussing too much directly relevant material in class because the students will be too emotionally wrapped up in it to learn objectivity, rational discussion, and forming their own opinions based on the evidence (rather than on what their parents or friends think). Thus he advised having the students practice those skills on historical topics that are further removed from them.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    since the mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it.>/i>

    Why is Seneca describing my high school students?