Learning and "Wasting Time" at Arts & Ideas

It's a beautiful day outside. Someone is organizing a game of Running Mafia- the would-be mafiosos are lined up at the car park. A stick village has sprung up out of nowhere, ephemeral art that is getting some play. I see a group of students knitting, a group of students chatting, and the ukelelists are strumming away on the wall. I catch a faraway look in one student's eyes as she stares off into space. Oh, to dawdle, to daydream! The delicious langour of a sunny afternoon- to let one's mind wander, to make room for new insights and connections, or simply to watch the world go by. What a wonderful feeling, I sigh.

But nobody is completing worksheets. Many of my teacher friends would see this as a "waste of time."

Could this possibly be a "waste of time?"

I can't help but think that I see this scene with very different eyes from most people. I see a myriad of inner worlds, each reflecting a unique individual. I see an intensely educational space, where real learning is happening. Scientific inquiry is proceeding without interference- what happens if I put this stick in this mud, just so? What are the physics of swinging upside-down? Social learning is happening- how do I relate to this person? How do I let my friend know I like them? How can we have fun together? And goals are being set- how high can I climb in this tree? Can I learn a song by my favorite musician?

There is value, too,  in the silences, of thinking nothing in particular, at all. It takes a great deal of time to reflect and integrate new experiences, and even more to develop and maintain close relationships with other people.  It saddens me to think that the many people would see this as a "waste of time."

I have a little voice in my head- maybe you have this voice too? The voice that says, "Don't waste time! Be productive! Do something! Quit. Goofing. Off!!" I wonder if it came from my years in public schooling, or a generalized Protestant work ethic that is pervasive in American culture- the idea of having a set task, buckling down, no pain no gain, jump through all the hoops.

It's all about framing. If you're supposed to be doing math homework, then doodling is a "waste of time," true. But what about the budding artist or illustrator? To an artist, algebra might be a waste of time, whereas doodling could lead to a wonderful blossoming of skills and profusion of productivity in the form of creative output. YouTubers, video game designers, webcomic artists...a lot of folks are making a living "doodling" these days.

The persistent hummer could do so much with an instrument, a microphone, time to develop their voice. The kid who drums incessantly on their desk with a pencil could do so much with a drum kit and some sticks. Forcing everyone to do the same thing all day... to me, that is the waste of time and human potential!

I continue eating my lunch, and my mind wanders to the open house I attended the previous weekend at The Circle School, where a panel of students took questions. A parent asked about transitioning from their old school; did they lose a lot of friends? The student speaks clearly, with confidence, in front of a packed room full of strange adults. 

"Well, I realized I didn't really spend much time with those people- I didn't know them as well as I know people here. At my old school, we could only talk at lunchtime. Here I can talk to my friends all day- as much as I could talk in a month to someone at my old school. So our friendships are deeper."

I'm impressed by her insight- her words ring true. I think about the relationships I made in middle school, that I keep to this day. They were built during summer vacation, and kept alive with little drips in the hallway, notes between lockers. What fun we had when we could hang out all day together! The home movies we made!

I'm brought back to the sunny day, as swingers swing and mafia players zig and zag across the field. Someone hides behind the tree I'm leaning against. "Do you see the mafia?" they breathlessly whisper. "They're behind the ladder tree," I answer. I'm colluding to hide a refugee- it's exciting! Meanwhile, the chickens cross the road, and some little kids run by in dress-up clothes.

I'm so glad that I'm not in charge of directing these vibrant, free beings, as I would be if I were a teacher in a classroom setting. Who am I to say whether time is being wasted? It's their life, and their time to spend, isn't it?