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.” 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…
Every year at Gregory the Great Academy, 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.