Scholē is Wasted on the Scholars

by Peter Saint-Andre


Exactly five years ago today I published a brief research report on the ancient Greek concept of σχολή. Illustrating the twists and turns that words can take over the millennia, for the ancients scholē meant leisure, but centuries later it also served as the root of our word 'school' - not a place that we associate with leisure!

One commenter on my post the other day about deep reading noted the novelty of re-reading books. Isn't reading the same book two or three times something that only scholars do, for instance when working on a Ph.D. thesis?

Well, the word 'scholar' too derives from σχολή, so if we think it through perhaps we can uncover a different, more humane form of scholarship that's open to everyone, not only the professionals who profess to know.

We often hear about the decline of the humanities, typically measured by the percentage of undergraduate students who major in fields like literature, history, and philosophy. Yet the humanities aren't the sole possession of professors and students; they should be broad enough to include what happens when you read a novel or go to a play or have a great conversation with an insightful friend of yours. These are the kinds of seriously leisured and actively contemplative pastimes that make life worthwhile.

Moreover, it's far from clear to me that academic scholars - living as they do in a status-driven world of ever-narrowing specialization and (even worse) overt political and ideological activism - truly understand the serious purposes to which leisure ought to be put. Indeed, I'd hazard that those who end up preserving the humanities will be folks like you and me who ask the big questions and work hard to understand the human condition - often, though by no means exclusively, by reading and re-reading and discussing great works of world literature, history, and philosophy. To my mind, this informal yet earnest pursuit of wisdom is scholē as its best.

(Cross-posted at


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal