One of the best pieces of advice I have received regarding education came in the form of a question posed at a summer conference for classical Christian education in 2021. The speaker, Dr. Christopher Perrin, asked an audience of classical educators, “What would it look like to dedicate one-seventh of our class time to Sabbath rest?” His words took me by surprise and started a series of thoughts and questions that led me to rethink the way I viewed education. My exploration of the connection between the fourth commandment and the enterprise of classical Christian education led to deeper and richer veins than I had expected. What I found was that the very idea – even the very word – of school is derived from both Jewish and Greek traditions, revealing the true nature and dignity of the human person. To apply the Sabbath principle to education, therefore, is more than just a plea for giving kids a break from rigorous studies, but a way to honor the image of God in our students.
The idea of dedicating one-seventh of our time comes directly from the Ten Commandments given to Moses and the Israelites. It is not introduced as a suggestion but as a command. It comes right in between “do not take the Lord’s name in vain” and “honor your father and mother.” What makes this commandment stand out, however, is that it is one of the few that includes an explanation. Not only that, but in the two places where we are given the Ten Commandments (in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), we get two different explanations for the Sabbath.
We read in Exodus, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work . . . For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Then in Deuteronomy, we read, “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy . . . You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”
In Exodus, the command is to remember the Sabbath day by remembering God’s act of creation. The Israelites are to imitate God by working for six days and resting on the seventh. It is a way to honor the image of God within themselves. In Deuteronomy, the command is to observe the Sabbath day as evidence of the fact that they are now a free people because God rescued them from slavery. They are to rest because they are no longer under the yoke of slavery but are indeed God’s chosen people. This practice of the Sabbath is the defining element of their culture; this is how a free society ought to live. In both accounts, we perceive that the larger purpose for the Sabbath is worship: we are to honor God as our creator and use the freedom he has given us to remember his mighty deeds of deliverance.
When I speak of the ‘Sabbath principle’, I am taking the 1 day out of 7 as a principle for dedicating 1/7 of our time to ‘acts of Sabbath’ and 6/7 of our time to ‘acts of work’. While the Sabbath itself is one day out of seven, following the commandment required that the Jews live all of the other days differently. All activities in the home and the community, such as cooking and buying food, were oriented toward making room for observing the weekly celebration. The Day of Sabbath was for prayer and remembering the acts of God, but, of course, that was not the only time people prayed or remembered. They did so everyday, but only for a small part of the day, perhaps a few minutes. The point is that the idea of taking a Sabbath day transforms your entire schedule. It changes the way you live the other six days, incorporating ‘little Sabbaths’ throughout the days of work.
This idea of ceasing from work to focus on the most important things in life was not limited to special or divine revelation. The Greeks also understood the importance of setting aside time to rest. In his masterful book Leisure the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper reminds us of how the Greeks thought about work. Whereas we think of leisure as the absence of work, the Greeks thought of work as the absence of leisure. Their word for work was askole and for leisure was skole, which is where we get our word school. In describing the best life for a human being Aristotle says in his Nicomachean Ethics, “Happiness is thought to depend on leisure; for we are busy that we may have leisure, and make war that we may live in peace.” His beautifully balanced phrase captures the essence of the Greek view of leisure. However, it also reveals an assumption about the nature and value of work.
Although Aristotle grasps the importance of leisure, he fails to see the dignity of work as something good in itself. The Greeks looked down on manual labor as something only fitting for slaves. The goal was to be rich enough to avoid working with your hands so that you could devote your time to higher and nobler pursuits like politics and philosophy. This derogatory view toward work misses the distinction found in Genesis between work and toil. The Bible reveals to us that work existed before the Fall: Adam and Eve worked in the Garden of Eden. After they eat the forbidden fruit, God says to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” The thorns and thistles only made the good work of gardening and farming more difficult. We were created to work, to fulfill God’s command to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Work is, therefore, just as sacred as leisure, for in both we reflect the image of our Creator who worked for six days and rested on the seventh.
In contrast to the Greek view which undervalues work, our world overvalues work and minimizes leisure. Pieper shows that the modern world’s assumption about work can be summed up in the phrase “one does not work to live, but one lives to work.” In the world of planned diligence and total labor, work is the highest good of human life. We live in a topsy-turvy world that sees leisure as a nice break that helps us come back refreshed for another Monday morning. The Greeks would have laughed at this idea. Here we have two extreme views of work: on the one hand, perpetual activity is the only meaningful way to spend our waking hours. On the other hand, work is beneath our dignity, and we should only spend our time contemplating goodness, truth, and beauty. The Medieval philosophers spoke of the vita activa (active life) and thevita contemplativa (contemplative life) .
These two kinds of life (active and contemplative) correspond to the distinction between two types or modes of knowledge: ratio and intellectus. Pieper explains, “Ratio is the power of discursive, logical thought, of searching and examination, of abstraction, of definition and drawing conclusions. Intellectus, on the other hand, is the name for the understanding . . . of that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye.” Ratio is active; intellectus is passive. Ratio reaches out, trying to fit all the pieces together into a coherent whole, while the intellectuspassively looks on and contemplates that which it has received.
The modern world (thanks to Kant) has reduced knowledge to ratio, which is why we overvalue work. In our topsy-turvy world, we value the effort one puts forth in acquiring knowledge over the content of one’s knowledge. Put simply, we value work over truth. Pieper invites us to look at the strain and tension of a student bent over his work in perpetual activity. He warns that this is a sign of “intellectual sclerosis that comes with not being able to receive or accept, of that hardening of the heart that refuses to suffer anything.” The constant strain of active intellectual effort is not merely undesirable but unhealthy and, ultimately, dehumanizing.
If we keep our students’ noses to the grindstone, how will they ever see and appreciate the true and good things they are learning? When will we call them to look up from their book (or, God forbid, from their screen) and drink in the beauty that is around them?
Let us consider the benefits and beauty of establishing this Sabbath rhythm in the classroom. After I heard Dr. Perrin’s provocative question, I challenged myself to incorporate leisure in my fourth-grade Latin class. I rearranged my lesson plans so that I could have one free day at the end of every chapter. Instead of ending with an assessment, I would introduce a picture, poem, or game that connected (however tenuously) to the content of the chapter. For example, after we read about Emperor Trajan, I showed my students pictures of Trajan’s Column. Since all the work for that chapter was completed, the only objective I had for the students was to enjoy looking at beautiful pictures from Rome and appreciate their own knowledge of Roman history. My most successful leisure activity was reading a poem I wrote on the Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter and discussing the Christian parallels I intentionally wove into my retelling. I was blown away by their ability to pull out images from the poem and connect it with their knowledge of Scripture. It showed me the importance of giving young students space to contemplate truth and enjoy beauty together, something I would otherwise have missed if I had spent those minutes introducing next week’s vocabulary list.
What I learned from my experiences was that both work and leisure tend to cultivate particular virtues in the students. The premier virtue cultivated during the days of work is diligence. The premier virtue cultivated during the time of leisure is gratitude. Diligence is one of the most important virtues for a student, which is why we are instructed to dedicate 6/7 or about 86% of our time to work. We want our students to develop the discipline to do hard things and to understand what it is all for. When students do good work, they should have a proper feeling of accomplishment.
However, there is a danger of promoting a works-based knowledge, the student version of a works-based salvation. We don’t want our students to become like King Nebuchadnezzar saying: “Is this not my great college transcript, which I have worked for and accomplished by the power of my great intelligence?” We risk communicating to our students that their value and worth is directly proportional to the amount of effort and hard work they put in during their time in school. That’s the feeling I got from public school. We want them to feel valued for who they are, not merely what they do. And who are they, but men and women created by God to receive and enjoy the wonders of His creation – and even to contribute to it – all for His glory?
Moreover, when they receive something good, true, or beautiful, they should have a feeling of gratitude. How do we teach gratitude? By giving our students the space to enjoy what they have learned. That is what we should aim for in our days of rest. The 14% of Sabbath is to have enough room to step back and celebrate the work we have accomplished. When we celebrate, we open our hands to each other in peace and together lift them up to God in thanksgiving for what He has done.
One of the biggest problems in our culture, especially among young people, is a lack of gratitude. Our students should be thankful for what they receive in their education; if not, we have failed. We want our students to receive the gifts and wisdom of Western civilization with joy, wonder, and appreciation, not with cynicism or indifference. We need to give them the space to enjoy what they are learning. If not, if we insist on working them to death, we may crush their love of learning and in its place erect an inordinate love of achievement.
These two virtues of diligence and gratitude, taken together, sum up not only the life of a student, but the life of a Christian. For at the root of diligence is love (diligere) and the chief task of the Christian is to love God and neighbor. At the root of gratitude is grace (gratia) which is how all Christians must be saved. Our faith, just like our learning, is both active and passive. We are called to love one another, yet we can only love fully when we surrender to Jesus Christ. We long to serve the community, yet we can only find the strength by being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in striking a proper balance between work and leisure and harmonizing the virtues of diligence and gratitude, one discovers the basis not only of a good education but of a good life.
Alex Markos teaches Latin at the Geneva School of Boerne, Texas. He holds a B.A. in History and Classics from Hope College (Holland, MI) and an M.A. in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University.
Alex Markos, “Leisure the Basis of Education: Applying the Sabbath Principle to the Classroom,” An Unexpected Journal: Leisure 6, no. 3. (Fall 2023), 119-127.
 Exodus 20:7, 12; Deuteronomy 5:11, 16.
 Exodus 20:8-11 (ESV).
 Deuteronomy 5:12, 15.
 The New Testament further speaks to the importance of the Sabbath. Jesus calls himself Lord of the Sabbath and took great pains to educate his society as to the purpose of the Sabbath. He shows by his actions and his words that the Sabbath is meant to be a gift for mankind – a time of healing and restoration.
 Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 19-20.
 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. David Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), X.7.
 Genesis 3:17 (NASB).
 Genesis 1:28. This is sometimes referred to as the Cultural Mandate.
 Pieper, Leisure, 20. He is quoting Max Weber’s study of capitalism and Protestant ethics.
 Pieper, Leisure, 28.
 Pieper traces the modern assumptions about work to the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who insisted that knowledge was exclusively the result of “active intellectual effort.” (Leisure, 27).
 Pieper, Leisure, 30-31.
 This poem was published in the Fall 2021 issue of An Unexpected Journal: Alex Markos, “Persephone, “An Unexpected Journal 4, No. 3 (Fall 2021), accessed August 9, 2023, https://anunexpectedjournal.com/persephone/.
 Daniel 4:30. “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” After this statement, God humbles Nebuchadnezzar by making him eat grass like a beast until he acknowledges that God alone deserves the glory.