Beer, skittles and education

“Life isn’t all beer and skittles,” wrote Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, “but beer and Skittles, or something better of the same sort, must form a good part of every Englishman’s education.”

This was Hughes’ conclusion given certain educational trends of the early 19th century, namely Mechanics Institutions, where clerks and workmen were trained through science, and Young Men’s Christian Societies, where the improvement of young men was traced through piety.

Both ended in what Hughes deemed “intellectual priggism” and “religious pharisaism”—the aberrations created by the absence of rustic sports and a robust life of leisure; or, if you will, beer and skittles. (By the way, skittles, also known as ninepins, which was the pre-cursor to 10-pin bowling, has been a popular English pub game since the 17th century.)

The things that often best define a society are the things done when unconstrained by the necessities of society. Leisure is the basis of culture, to borrow Josef Pieper’s title, and what people do in their leisure time is, therefore, central to self-identity and to the quality of life. Education can, by this principle, be either enhanced or undone when school is out. Amusements and activities are a vital aspect of formation, and thus the “beer and skittles” of life have a serious part to play in a serious education. In Hughes’ words:

Don’t let reformers of any sort think that they are going really to lay hold of the working boys and young men of England by any educational grapnel whatever, which isn’t some bona fide equivalent for the games of the old country… something to put in the place of the back-swording and wrestling and racing; something to try the muscles of men’s bodies, and the endurance of their hearts, and to make them rejoice in their strength. In all the new-fangled comprehensive plans which I see, this is all left out.

The reformers Hughes condemned are still at work, and their new-fangled comprehensive plans still leave out healthy leisure. Leisure nowadays might be better called a lesion, if not Legion. Unhealthy pastimes are a large reason behind the raging educational crisis for they tend to shut out goodness, truth, and beauty. A formative education is not possible alongside pornography and casual sex, television programs depicting violence, perversity, and relativism—or blockbuster movies showcasing heroes who challenge the traditional moral compass. Education is being obstructed by the obsession with cell phones and social media. It is being drowned in the rise of recreational drug abuse. If only we had nothing but intellectual priggism and religious pharisaism to deal with. Ours, instead, is the age of the walking dead.

The vigorous games of the good old country that Hughes praised, like wrestling and racing, have devolved into the languid games of a brave new world like twerking and tweeting. Beer and skittles have been replaced with methamphetamines and iPhones. Leisure has become destructive instead of constructive, and it needs reclaiming as an important aspect and measure in forming the sensibility of young people. Education must go on beyond the classroom in developing tastes and tendencies, and one of these formative, extracurricular factors is to give students a real experience of community, of belonging to something greater than themselves.

To use an example from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand, and Stars, many miners risk life and limb to save one of their comrades. One can only imagine what leisure was like amongst such laborers—they who struggled and sacrificed for humanity and its intrinsic value so heroically must have celebrated it as heroically, too. The experience of this is, unfortunately, a rare occurrence in the world today. Men are meant to live in close-knit communities that share the joys of leisure, but they have never been more isolated. Young people should experience that which transcends and ennobles the sum of its parts, be it a family, a church, a team, or a school. From that togetherness, that sympathy, the leisure that breeds life, love, and labor flourishes.

When the culture is corrupt, however, even the best of schools face uphill, even losing battles as students return to the cesspools teachers strive to free them from every day. Teachers who can must make what efforts they can to expand their influence and bring the education of leisure into times of leisure—as St. John Bosco was wont to do—and turn their students away from the cesspool and toward the realities that cultivate the soil of the soul and clear the air of the intellect.

My own school, being a boarding school, is blessed with cultural control beyond our classrooms and is able to arrange and allow for leisure that is as educational as it is enjoyable. Our students are not permitted to have cell phones or laptops—or even to access computers or any digital devices. Thus unencumbered, their recreation is designed and designated to complement their natures and needs, inviting them to rejoice in their strength as human beings.

For instance, every year at our school there is an event called Robin Hood Days, where the students and faculty process with bows, belts, knives, and flags under the greenwood tree where all live together as merry men for several days. After setting up elaborate campsites, an outdoor kitchen, and a chapel, the boys feast on pit-roasted meats washed down with birch beer as they compete in a series of woodland skittles: archery tournaments, knife and axe throwing, whittling, wrestling, quarterstaff bouts, fire-starting races, and old Native American relay games.

All this may sound unusual for boys of our times to be doing, but to experience it is the most natural thing in the world. Laughter, songs, climbing trees, fires, food and drink, stories, games, hearty cheers, the occasional bloody nose, the ever-accompanying helping hand up, communal prayer, conversation beneath the stars. This is leisure, and it is profoundly educational. Hughes was right—beer and skittles, or their betters, must form a good part of any education.

But if there are to be beer and skittles, there must first be friendship. Friendship is an essential attribute in education, for schools are groups of friends at leisure who, all necessary business aside, enjoy the free exercise of their reason; hence the term “faculty”: an enabled organ free from any purpose but its own exercise. A faculty that is joined in friendly leisure with its students is the strength of a school, for human enterprises most often fail because human relations are impeded or strained. The only hope is a bond stronger than the individuals’: the love of friends bound upon a common endeavor or game, and expressed with eloquence by beer and skittles—the indispensable commodities of any education.

SEAN FITZPATRICK is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.

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