Among the more delightful experiences in academic life is the spontaneous exchange of ideas in a classroom setting, exchanges that can move educators to exclaim, “This is how I always thought the academy was supposed to work!” Such moments—however few or fleeting—remind us that, at their best, institutions of higher education have been society’s safe spaces for unstructured idea play. Whether this will continue to be the case in the increasingly overmanaged precincts of academe is, however, not at all certain.
Contemporary education policy—which fixates on “the impact agenda” and tailors academic pursuits to narrow utilitarian (read “economic” and “employment”) aims—emphasizes measurable results starting as early as kindergarten. Whether the education experience fosters anything approximating a love of learning seems to be beside the point. Performance, not play, is the name of the game—never mind that educators and researchers have long recognized play as an essential component of cognitive and social development from early childhood through adulthood, animating human projects as diverse as artistic creation, business innovation, and scientific discovery. Apparently, the stakes have become too high for us to be seen engaging in something as freewheeling and frivolous as unstructured idea play, which people in many professional circles tend to regard as the antithesis of real work.
Writing in the journal Educational Forum in 1965, Philip Phenix challenged fellow educators “to understand the self-defeating nature of the pursuit of practicality and to encourage wherever possible the pursuit of studies in and for the joy of learning.” Among the “wherevers” still possible on a college or university campus, the classroom (used here in its physical sense and also metaphorically to represent places of interaction among those dedicated to the life of the mind) is perhaps the last holdout against the political, commercial, and cultural forces currently reshaping and misshaping the academy. Educators should take a step back from the obsession with performance (both individual and institutional) and instead cultivate places and practices that permit the free play of curiosity and exploration. They can do this in many ways, including by departing from the syllabus to let class discussions take intellectually stimulating detours or by making time and space for deep reading, quiet reflection, and informal conversations wherever active minds are at work.
It grows easier by the day to imagine a dystopian scenario in which the academy subordinates freethinking and administers a mass-produced learning experience in lockstep with state and market mandates. In such a scheme, the climate of choice and chance is replaced with one of accountability and assurance. The syllabus is effectively a contract, and parties other than the faculty predetermine objectives and surveil pedagogy to the last detail. The professor is now expected to be a “manager in miniature” of each student’s performance, a helicopter instructor within a helicopter institution. All of this is a predictable outgrowth of an academy that has, over time, yielded to increasing levels of coordination and control.
If we seek a more robust culture of idea play, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that this goal will be supported by employers, legislators, or other external actors to whom we increasingly defer for our validation. That may be disappointing, but it is not absolutely necessary for us to win their approval. Our dependence on the favor of systems and structures whose antipathy toward our values has been amply demonstrated isn’t logical so much as pathological. It is also probably unrealistic to expect much overt institutional opposition to the performance regime, but what large entities cannot do, individuals or small groups within them still can. Educators do not require institutional infrastructure to create a culture of idea play. Culture is something people cocreate organically day after day, through actions that reinforce a set of values. A culture of idea play is lived by members of a community imbued with what Phenix called “the play spirit.”
Elemental to play, as Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote in his 1938 book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, is the idea that it is “an intermezzo, an interlude in our daily lives.” Such a pause can be generated by a voluntary exile from the usual flow of activity or by forces largely beyond our control. In both cases, the underlying action is withdrawal—a removal from space and time.
In the same way that human withdrawal from shared social space during the COVID-19 pandemic has had a salutary effect on the planet (with climate scientists reporting that global daily carbon emissions were down 17 percent as of early April 2020 compared with mean 2019 levels), we might ask what has been regenerated or recuperated during our own period of absence from the campus. What might grow, in other words, in untended—and unintended—terrain?
The new norms of enforced social distance from our regular institutional routines might allow us to reflect on how we can step away from our constant focus on outcomes and create spaces for the free exploration of ideas. How can we equip students to think creatively about the circumstances in which we find ourselves? In what ways are we outfitting students to be the protagonists of their own stories? What are we doing to develop a capacity for self-directed learning when the usual rules of engagement are upended or suspended?
There will come a time when today’s pandemic has passed, and colleges and universities will return to a slightly revised version of normal operations. Poetry, philosophy, painting, music, and literature will have saved and enriched countless lives during the pandemic, but not in the ways that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields do (through their development of vaccines and therapeutics, for example). The disinvestment in and devaluation of the arts and humanities will likely intensify in the face of new financial pressures on higher education’s business model. None of us should wish for a repeat of the conditions that forced us to vacate our campuses in spring 2020, but we might carry forward something of the spirit of withdrawal occasioned by the pandemic as a means of securing what is most precious to us: learning. It is far too valuable to be left to the vagaries of budgets, bureaucracies, or business considerations.
Within the statement “This is how I always thought the academy was supposed to work” lies a critique of how (or for whom) colleges and universities work now, and how (or for whom) they do not. I suggest that educators commit periodically to a withdrawal from our fixation on measurable results to focus on the intellectual values we profess to care about as a community of scholars—values that appear to be in peril.
We are, in many respects, the proper “trustees” (the caretakers) of the institution of higher education—its traditions, values, meaning, and purpose. That rich endowment has less to do with monetary wealth than with the cultural inheritance entrusted to us. It is ours now to steward or to squander. By doing more of that which nourishes the mind, we can rescue and restore a culture of idea play.
Photo illustration by Alvaro Dominguez