In The Abolition of man, CS Lewis writes, “the task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” Elsewhere Lewis writes that the, “Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.” He then goes on to to say that we are “half-hearted creatures.” If you have spent any time in a high school classroom recently you will likely affirm Lewis’ exhortation that, “for every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.” No character in modern American television better exemplifies the tendency towards a weak excess of sensibility than Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope.
Leslie Knope is the Assistant Parks Director in the fictional town of Pawnee, IN. Knope epitomizes the “type A” personality. She is driven, pushy, and detailed. However, throughout the course of the show’s six seasons, her sometimes excessive type A sensibilities have little negative impact on her relationships. Sure, at times her loved ones grow annoyed with her. Her friends often make jokes aimed at her passions. Leslie will make jokes at her own expense when she, at moments, realizes that she is “a little much sometimes.” In season 5, episode 19, Leslie’s husband, Ben, and her best friend, Ann, find themselves in a bidding war for a waffle maker that each of them hopes to give Leslie as a gift. It is not Leslie’s birthday, nor is it Christmas. In fact, both Ben and Ann have different anniversaries with Leslie for which they see the waffle maker as the perfect gift. Ben needs a gift for Leslie to celebrate “Waffle Day” which is the anniversary of the first time the two ate waffles together. Ann needs the waffle maker because she thinks it is the perfect gift for Leslie as the two celebrate “Breakfast Day” which is the anniversary of the first time the two of them went out to breakfast.
Why are Ben and Ann celebrating such trivial events? Because Leslie celebrates everything. As the episode progresses, you learn that Leslie has dozens of these anniversary events for each of them. Both Ben and Ann want the waffle maker because they want to finally get the perfect gift for Leslie (who loves waffles). But why? Because Leslie gets each of them thoughtful gifts for every one of these dozens of anniversaries. Leslie is able to give such thoughtful gifts to her loved ones because, to Leslie, everything matters. Leslie is a kindred spirit of those students whose “jungles” of sensibilities may need to be pruned from time to time, but it is easier to cut down a jungle than to irrigate the deserts.
I find Parks and Recreation to inspiritingly hopeful as an educator. Leslie loves her work. She doesn’t see her job as a means to the end of leisure and entertainment. Instead, she sees her work as an end. Leslie finds meaning and joy in the tedium of her municipal vocation. For a brief time, I served as a City Commissioner for the City of Raleigh’s Human Relations Commission. I have sat through several municipal meetings and it makes little sense to me how Leslie could love the public forum or the community feedback meeting as much as she does. Leslie’s passion and deep care for everything in her life is often mocked. However, it is her passion and care for everything that changes the show’s other characters. We may be able to mock a passionate enthusiast, but a passionate enthusiast who is enthused by everything, even her friendships? Eventually, that passion will change people and invite them into loving things more deeply.
That is precisely what happens to the show’s resident apathetic young cynic, April Ludgate. The show begins with the 19-year-old April who begins an internship with the Parks Department. April hates everything for season after season, but Leslie’s love of even the mundane begins to shape and form April into a lover in her own right.
When we compare Leslie Knope to other “jungles of sensibility” in two other shows, we can begin to see the importance of our work. The character Ross Geller from Friends and Dwight Schrute from The Office are two who share the Leslie Knope sensibility of life. Ross is always mocked for his love of learning and his passion for paleontology. Dwight loves the work of selling paper and beet farming. The unirrigated deserts that are the other characters in Friends and The Office constantly demean these two characters because to them, not everything matters. Work is mundane and stupid; it is but a means to the end of entertaining ourselves endlessly. “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” In Friends and The Office, the worldview of the desert prevails. Parks and Recreation is a show about the transformative power of a worldview which sees that everything matters. All things are signs which point to meaning transcendent.
Our schools need to be places which enable the transformation of once unirrigated deserts into flourishing forests. We can only accomplish this calling by following the Leslie Knope approach. Our work is not a means to an end. The book you are reading as a class is not assigned so that students may read it and then get a grade which will get them into a college so that they can graduate and make a lot of money to free them up to work for the weekend. Our work is an end. The book assigned is a part of the life that is a flourishing forest. Newtonian physics matter, choral performances matter, the Pythagorean Theorem matters. We have to love our work. We have to love our disciplines. We have to love classical education. We cannot be half-hearted creatures. May it never be said of a classical educator or student that his desires are too weak. We do not simply punch the clock so that we can enjoy our summers filled with all the entertainment our salaries can buy.
Our vocation is a call to re-enchant the world. Everything matters to Leslie Knope and that changes the hearts and minds of the characters around her. Our head of school once gave a talk at a faculty meeting where he encouraged us to see that, “everything matters.” Let everything matter to us so that we may irrigate the deserts and pray with hope and expectation that God will bring forth flourishing forests.