Classical Education as Play

By Travis Copeland

Though it may be counterintuitive, discipline lies at the root of pleasure.

We all wish to know and be informed of what we are doing and what is going on around us. My students have demonstrated this to me many times. They come into the room, lay down their books, pull out their chair, and ask: “Are we doing anything fun today?” To be honest, I have not always answered this question well. As a new teacher, I shrugged it off quickly as a kind of laziness; the more I teach and ponder, the more I realize there is a deep underlying assumption in that question, a longing for value. At minimum, students want to know that what is occupying their time contains either a thrill-like fun or enduring meaning—both of which are essential aspects of classical education.

It is an innate human desire to long for pleasure or purpose. We pursue these things continually in our lives, and the educational environment is no exception. Yet there is also an unfortunate, hidden dichotomy in the question of whether we are “doing anything fun today.” The only options proposed are fun or education; play and learning are mutually exclusive. Before I gave it more thought, I usually sided with education and learning.

But what if education could be play? What if, instead of dichotomizing classical education and playfulness, they were essential to one another? For teachers, parents, and schools, I would like to suggest that a good, thorough, and rigorous classical education is indeed a form of play, and should be pursued as such. At first sight this assertion might seem contradictory or ludicrous, but it is important to understand what the word “play” means in this context, and what it does not mean.

Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

To begin with, classical education is obviously not apathetic, careless, or lazy, as the common use of play connotes. When we think of the term in its everyday use, we tend to think of “doing whatever you want.” This sense of play is any unbounded, energetic activity, which yields immediate pleasure but bears no lasting fruit. Yet the best play does contain boundaries, structure, and purpose. An elementary school student playing soccer on the playground enjoys the boundaries established by the rules of the game—enjoys them more, in fact, than merely wandering around the playground with “total freedom.” The student who is set “free” in total disregard of the excellence of their study is being taught apathy in the guise of autonomy.

However, the instructor who expects a lot from their pupils, disciplines speech, and insists upon repetitive precision in learning, trains them in a freedom that will yield delight for years to come (not least when they return to the great books). Classical education needs to contain an enthusiasm rooted in anticipating the freedom that comes to the well-educated, liberal mind.

A good classical education—from the great books to Latin to logic to mathematics—affords its students the lasting delights that only intellectual independence can provide. However, these delights may not come initially or constantly. No one can take in all the accomplishments of western civilization in a semester; classical education is not built in a day any more than Rome was. An individual student’s encounter with the true, the good, and the beautiful is the fruit of time. So when we say education is a form of play, we understand that discipline is part and parcel of good play. A musician who has mastered the cello and feels the freedom of the music is shaped by years of often-tedious practice, as well as by the intrinsic boundaries of note and method. It is thus that classical education is play, shaped by the virtues of careful reading, lively thought, and constant practice. As students and teachers labor together, the result is a mounting intellectual freedom, like the artistic freedom of the master cellist. Reading closely and deeply becomes natural; conjugating Latin verbs turns into reading Latin literature. The results are not play in the sense of childish instant gratification, but in the sense of a free-flowing pleasure earned through intellectual maturity. A mind that has been patiently honed like an instrument can, in the end, play at will.

Travis Copeland holds a bachelor’s degree in history and humanities, and is studying for a postgraduate history degree. He teaches at Thales Academy, a community of classical schools in North Carolina. When not writing and teaching, Travis enjoys poetry, gardening, and conversation with good company around good food.

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If you liked this piece, check out some of our other content here at the Journal, like this post on the idea of religion or this author profile of Boethius. You might also enjoy our podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate discusses issues of education and culture with leading intellectuals.

Page image of the painting Snap the Whip by Winslow Homer (1872).

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