Learning Like Mary in the Age of Martha

by Devin O'Donnell

“Man can get used to anything, the scoundrel!” So says Dostoyevsky in more than one of his novels. This observation of human nature does not pertain merely to morality or psychology. It relates to anything human. And when it comes to education—yes, even classical education— such a statement must be considered in the context of our time.

One of man’s distinguishing characteristics is the curious ability to adapt and adjust to new conditions of life. In certain instances, this can be a great strength. A man needs all his wits about him if he is to survive in the jungle, and if he is to go from a life of comfort to the harsh realities of the Amazon, it will not bode well for his survival if he is unable to adjust his expectations. From a moral and spiritual perspective, however, man’s ability to adjust to new states of being can also prove a great weakness. Although a moral sense is generally present in each of us, it is certainly not always fixed to the right point of reference, and it only takes a little compromise here or there to find that our own standards have changed. Our notions of a just polis, true happiness, the nature of church, or eternal salvation can shift over time or be redefined entirely. And we can get used to this.

In other words, if conditions of life can shift without humans fully realizing it, this could mean that what used to constitute a common vision of “the good life” might be forgotten only a century or two later. In his essay “Our English Syllabus,” C.S. Lewis warns us:

One of the most dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century progressive optimism is the idea that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost. The normal state of humanity is barbarism, just as the normal surface of our planet is salt water. (Lewis, Image and Imagination: Essays and Reviews, 22–23)

Man really can get used to anything. This is especially troubling if our society is too busy to notice that it has misplaced its sense of shared values, lost its collective memory, and corrupted the means by which it hands on its social capital to future generations.

In response to the onset of an accelerated form of cultural dementia, philosopher Josef Pieper wrote Leisure: The Basis of Culture in 1952. His aim was to remind the waning West of an essential element that made culture, well, culture. That essential element was leisure—not the amusement-park life that we often associate with that term, but that divine and gratuitous part of human existence that ennobles life, causing us to pause and reflect, pray and praise, fast as well as feast. We do not now associate leisure with school, but one of Pieper’s great insights is that  we cannot have school without scholé: what we define in classical education circles as leisurely, restful learning. The Greek skole and Latin schola—classical words meaning “leisure”—are, in fact, the very origin of our English word “school.” For most of Western history, therefore, leisure was education; scholé was school. Admittedly, Pieper’s argument extends beyond the educational concerns of his day, but this etymological fact is partly why he says leisure is the basis of “culture.” Without an education maintained in this sense, culture begins to disappear.

Pieper’s insights are more relevant now than ever, and we ignore them at our peril. If Pieper was able to point out how culture and education had shifted in his own day, how much more should we be aware of how these have shifted in ours? What about those of us in the enterprise of classical learning? Are we immune to such dangers simply because we still have the Great Books and Latin?

Pieper was not the first to critique the disruption and anxiety of modern life. In his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot characterizes modern life as having “neither plentitude nor vacancy” and declares that our lives are “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Lewis and others repeatedly pointed to the evils of utilitarian forms of education. And plenty of theorists, such as Marshall McLuhan, warned us of the coming deluge of electronic media and the social and anthropological turbulence that would ensue.

These struggles may not necessarily be new. In some sense, man has always been in danger of losing his ability to see and contemplate. Augustine knew it: in his Confessions, he wrote that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. Wordsworth knew it in his day, too: for in all our “getting and spending we lay waste our powers / little we see in Nature that is ours,” he wrote in his sonnet “The World Is Too Much With Us.” In chasing after the world’s desiderata, “we have given our hearts away.” And today man trades his glimpses of Proteus rising from the sea for glimpses of the latest social-media craze, be it Instagram feeds, YouTube entertainment, or Snapchat ephemera. But this is one reason why the Scriptures warn us through the parable of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42). We can be like Mary, who chose to be still and present for the most important thing. Or we can be like Martha, who was worried about her tasks and earthly things, and who was admonished for her unwillingness to rest and give attention to what matters most.

If distraction is not new in kind, however, it is new in degree. Things really have changed since the days of Augustine, Wordsworth, and Eliot. There is almost no time or space left to us that is unmolested by the noise, distraction, or utilitarian exploits of our present age. We have forgotten what silence means and what it is to really be still. We have grown used to our distractions. Even in the seat of contemplation—schools and churches—there is often little place for the free and “useless” delight in the Transcendent and Divine.

Our present age presents us with blessings and curses. We have the content of classical learning in great quantity, for instance, thanks to greater access to the classical and medieval sources than perhaps at any other time in history. We have the opportunity of creating a curriculum of study that would have made Erasmus envious. But our problem is not for want of books. Rather, it’s the opposite: We have too many books. Our curse is that we’ve forgotten how to (re)create the best conditions for study.

Simply put, we are living in the “Age of Martha,” and understanding this is critical for educators today, especially for those Christian educators and parents who are part of the renaissance of classical learning. If we are to be faithful with the inheritance of a liberal arts tradition, then we must return to seeing leisure as a guiding principle in our efforts. If we blithely assume that we can just do classical education in the modern world without examining how things have changed culturally, we risk a grave self-deception. Man can get used to anything. This is all the more reason to reexamine the form of our content, the preconditions of the classical learning we are so proud to offer.

This reexamination of modern classical education in light of leisure is the main thesis of my recent book, The Age of Martha (Classical Academic Press, 2019). I wrote it as a rallying cry for all of us who live in a frenzied age and who, whether we are conscious of it or not, need to return to contemplative learning. It’s an exhortation for us to be more like Mary while living in an age of Martha. It’s an attempt at showing how we might come to see school once again as scholé. This approach calls for a needed recalibration of our philosophy of academics: one that reimagines school schedules, calendars, assessments, grades, pedagogy, and technological forms in light of this classical understanding of leisure. We are moderns doing classical education, and we know that man can get used to anything.

My hope is that this book will serve as a reminder of a different age, a different sense of time altogether, when sustained moments of quiet were readily available. The purpose, however, is not simply to leave us in nostalgic pining for the dear dead days gone by. This book is also meant to be an encouragement to educators as we undertake the hard work of finding leisure, for it is in scholé that we cultivate not only virtue but also attention. This attention, as philosopher Simone Weil says, is the very substance of prayer and ultimately “the right use of school studies with a view toward the love of God.” If leisure allows us to better know and love God, his Word, and his world, then it is surely worth the gift of our time and attention.

Devin O'Donnell

Devin O’Donnell is the author of The Age of Martha: A Call to Contemplative Learning in a Frenzied Culture (Classical Academic Press, 2019). He has taught and worked in classical education for over 15 years. In 2009, he and his wife joined some crazy families and founded a classical Christian school in California, where he later served as headmaster. In other vocational adventures, he was the Research Editor for the Bible publishing project Bibliotheca (2015). He has also written for many organizations and publications, including Touchstone, the CiRCE Institute, and Classis. He and his wife have 4 adventurous children. Currently, he lives in the Northwest and serves as the Director of Family & Community Education at The Oaks Classical Christian Academy. He continues to teach Great Books because he just can’t help it. He delights in exploring the classics and learned society in order to find wisdom.

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