Saturday, July 24, 2010

Just sitting and thinking...

The cover story in this week’s TIME magazine is a story warning us against the romantic attachment to summer vacation because “that downtime is making our kids fall behind.” I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, really. The corporate world already considers any kind of vacation a criminal waste. Too many professionals brag about how they never use up all their days off, boast about how much vacation time they lost last year. They’ve convinced many of us to react with resentment toward anyone who gets (and can actually take) paid vacation, or who only works 40 hours a week.

To be fair, the TIME article has in mind far more than just another 30 days sitting in the classroom doing more math sums and grammar drills. What TIME envisions is more like the greatest summer camp ever, particularly for kids from tough neighborhoods and other low-income areas, who often lack resources for “stimulation.” There is certainly great value in suggesting that we could do far better by kids with few resources than we do now, especially when it comes to offering them fun and interesting alternatives to sitting inside playing video games while their parents work two jobs and tell them to stay put because going down to the playground means risking getting shot.

But I am wary of a “one-size-fits-all” solution, and I do think we have a tendency to overemphasize the value of “stimulation.” While doing nothing but playing video games all summer is hardly enriching, not every child will spend the summer trapped in a stuffy apartment. By all means, offer great summer programs for all kids, and make them free and available to all. But there is value in the boredom of summer vacation as well. And getting rid of summer vacation entirely, eliminating a good, long break where kids have enough time to get bored, would be a terrible mistake.

What message do we send when we fret about “falling behind” and ditch vacation time to improve test scores? It makes perfect sense if we say, as the corporate world would like us to, that the meaning of life is economic productivity. But there is much more to life than hours spent toiling to make stuff, in order to earn money to buy more stuff. The more hours spent working, the better, because then there is more stuff we can buy (though never enjoy, because we are too busy working).

The prevailing view in the campaign against summer vacation seems to be that summer vacation is good only for emptying our children’s heads of the useful and important information we spent 10 months stuffing into it. Summer vacation teaches our children to be lazy!

Well, yes. It does. It gives them time to learn all kinds of things that have nothing at all to do with economic productivity. They may learn to sit silently, watching a dragonfly or a frog. They might dig a hole, not for any particular purpose, but just to see how deep they can make it. They spend time with friends. They make crafts that have no purpose other than the joy of creating. They swim. They play games. They may even be forced to spend some time with family. They sleep. They rest.

In other words, they learn what gives life meaning. They learn about sabbath. They learn the wisdom of slowing down and resting from hard labor. They learn to do it in a slow way, not in a frantic rush to cram all the fun they can stand into the one week allotted by the Powers That Be. You can only learn to sit and listen for the still, small voice when you have no place else to be, or something to do. Constant enrichment could actually impoverish children, who will never learn to endure boredom long enough to wait upon God.

Summer vacation is not just the remnant of a time when most people lived on farms and were needed for agricultural labor in the summer months. It’s a remnant of a time when people didn’t move quite so quickly, when there was time to notice the passing of the seasons, when Sunday was a day of rest even for farmers, when sundown meant time to sleep. It’s a reminder of a time when hard work was valued, but so was time for prayer, worship, and rest. It’s a reminder of what a balanced life could be -- one with time for study and learning and accomplishment, as well as time for rest and reflection and just sitting there doing nothing.

In our 24/7 world, we have been taught to view every moment not spent accomplishing something to be wasted time. We multitask, and brag about how many things we can do at one time. And we look with horror at summer vacation as a pit of squandered time, when our children’s hard-earned academic accomplishment somehow leaks out their ears.

But corporate values should not be our values. The meaning of our lives is not to be found in how many documents we create, or widgets we build, or money we make. It does not rest in our ability to do calculus in our heads, or in having higher test scores than kids in Japan. The corporation may value us in dollars produced per man hour, but God values us for the wonderful, unique person God created. We cannot fully become that person if our every hour is governed by another lecture, or another set of flash cards, or more striving to achieve higher levels of economic productivity. To learn who we truly are, to learn what it means to be human, we need to stand on the shore and watch the waves... and watch them... and watch them. We need to sit on the lawn mesmerized by the ants. We need to build relationships not through Carnegie Mellon classes designed to teach us how to manipulate people, but simply by being present to another human being for hours on a hot summer day.

If I thought for an instant the summer programs we’d replace summer vacation with would include long hours for exploring each child’s own creative impulses, for sitting watching the rain, for hanging out laughing with friends, I might be willing to support them. But I know it would take perhaps 30 seconds before corporate values of accomplishment would take over, and school committees would demand to see results from those extra 30 days. We spent all that money, and all you did was sit around watching ants? How can you waste time like that, when you could have done MCAS practice questions?

What good is summer vacation? Why, it’s only where we learn who we are separate from the work we do, the unique person that God created. That’s something the corporate world would rather we didn’t know -- and it’s why kids need summer vacation now more than ever.