In Surprised by Joy, Lewis shares what he believes to be the ideal schedule for the student. He derives this pattern from the “routine” which he was accustomed to at an in-home boarding school where he was, in essence, homeschooled, along with a handful of other boys. He says this daily routine “has ever since served in my mind as an archetype, so that what I still mean when I speak of a ‘normal’ day (and lament that normal days are so rare) is a day of [this] pattern.” Here’s the ideal scholarly schedule, according to Lewis:
I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better…At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road [for a walk]…The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude…for eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably…At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading.
Other than meals, Lewis’s day consists of four basic activities, each of them distinct from the others: school work, walking (which he specifies must be done alone), reading for pleasure, and then finally conversation. Each of these four components represents a vital part of the scholarly life: study, rejuvenation, entertainment, and social interaction. In my next few posts, I’d like to cover each of these topics in turn, considering how Lewis’s habits can be helpful to the homeschooler.
The foundation of the school day, of course, must be study. What strikes me the most about this passage (other than the seemingly magical arrival of lunch and tea) is the extended periods of continuous study: reading or writing for five hours in the morning, and then another two-hour block of school work in the late afternoon.
Lewis was at about the logic stage when he first followed this schedule at his boarding school. It’s impressive to me that a student so young could work for such extended periods of time without taking a significant break. In many ways, I think modern day home educators have a much more difficult battle to fight for their students’ attention spans than Lewis’s teachers probably did. Extended periods of serious study are increasingly difficult to achieve for the modern-day student who is constantly bombarded by a fast-paced world that demands attention (and offers distractions) at every turn. Scholars like Cal Newport, author of Deep Work have written extensively about this problem. In his book, Newport notes that the average modern day brain is so unaccustomed to boredom that it does not know how to not be distracted:
If every moment of potential boredom in your life–say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives–is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where…it’s not ready for deep work–even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.
This means that extended periods of deep concentration will be difficult for the modern student, especially for older ones who have been pulled fully in to the technological culture.
But even in our fractured modern day, students can learn the habit of continuous, uninterrupted study. It grows easier with practice, as the brain re-learns the discipline of concentration. Set up a technology-free/Internet-free zone where your students must spend some amount of their study time. Set a timer and ask your student to read for the duration. Or, for an older student, set a reading goal (“Try to read the next canto of Dante’s Inferno without taking a break.”) Gently increase your student’s goals for extended periods of study over time.
Lewis’s schedule is also a one designed to put the learner in a place of contemplation whenever possible. Lewis’s approach to study seems to frame it as a primarily contemplative act. It is not primarily a social act, or a source of entertainment. There is a time and place for sociability (after dinner) and a time and place for entertainment (reading for pleasure during tea). The rest of the time, the student is to be studying in solitude. Depending on your student’s age, abilities, and learning styles, you may need to supervise and interact with your student during long blocks of study, but even so, Lewis’s perspective is helpful. We should strive to make contemplation the primary goal. Find places in your home for your students (especially your older students) to sequester themselves for deep contemplative work and build a routine in which they stay put for a set period of time, even if that time is relatively short to begin with.
Overcoming the temptation of distraction or the impulse to find distraction when we feel bored or tired of the same activity requires discipline and perseverance. These are not easy skills to develop, but they are worthwhile. If your young student can persevere through twenty pages in a chapter book now, she will have the fortitude necessary to persevere through Dante later. If your logic or rhetoric stage student can persevere through an extended writing or reading task now, he will be able to organize himself for the much more monumental task of his senior thesis later. A mind that can focus on a scholarly task for an extended length can accomplish far more than most in our modern day. Imagine what your child will be able to accomplish if, by adulthood, she has been practicing the discipline of contemplative study for all of her school age years.
Aubry Myers is the Director of Classical Education at Granite Classical Tutorials.