In my early days as a teacher, I gave quizzes and tests in class, and when students finished early, I said, “Read a book. Or do work from other classes. Be productive. Make a good use of your time.” I no longer give tests in class, and the only quizzes I distribute are reading quizzes that take sixty seconds to complete, so it is rare that I offer instruction to students on what they should do with their extra time at school. However, on the rare occasion I find students with spare minutes on their hands, I no longer tell them to get busy.
The purpose of busyness, at least among students, is not “making good use of time,” but not making bad use of time. Students with idle hands and time to burn are more likely to start gossiping, flirting, aimlessly asking to use the restroom, and generally making a nuisance of themselves to others who are trying to finish. Nonetheless, in my experience, having students who finish early begin some work for another class rarely takes care of idle hands. An open book is not a talisman which magically wards off the demon of gossip and flirtation.
If I am standing in line at a grocery store and I have my phone, I am usually looking at it. However, if I leave my phone at home, time in the grocery line means time to look at the strangers around me and wonder about their lives, perhaps even pity them because they are also human. Or it leaves me time to say the Jesus prayer. Or it gives me time to ruminate on the world, think fondly of my children, and plan my evening. Learning to use four odd minutes to think is a skill, not a given, and the more dependent I am on my phone (or flipping through Vanity Fair), the less adept I am at addressing my soul. A man is his body, and a man is his soul, but a man’s soul is also another person— a more important person— and it behooves a man to speak with this other person from time to time and see how he is doing and what he wants. Spending the four minutes I have to wait in line reading a small paperback copy of Mansfield Park would not be a good use of this time, for I would be easily distracted by the people in front of me, and Vanity Fair, and chances are good that if I got two pages read, I would have to go back and read those same two pages again the next time I sat down with the book.
This is all to say that aimless busy-work might be just as big a waste of time as staring off into space. Or perhaps an even bigger waste of time, for I have done important and helpful thinking while staring off into space in the margins and corners of a day. At least half the articles I’ve published on this website which earned more than a thousand likes on Facebook came to me when I was sitting around, doing nothing. A liberal arts school is given for contemplation, and if a student can quietly stare out the window for twenty minutes after he is finished with a test, I would prefer this to cramming twenty minutes of algebra homework in. School is a place where the spare minutes of the day cannot be given to a digital screen, and these spare minutes are the last of a dying breed. If a student uses spare test time to finish algebra homework, that’s twenty extra minutes to look at a screen at home. It is twenty minutes wherein quiet soul-searching is not really a given. Classical teachers should not teach students that they need to always be doing something “productive.” How often have we told our students to make good use of their extra minutes by “being productive” and doing some homework, as though nothing good comes from staring out the window? We read The Wind in the Willows at this school. Hang productivity.