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WHAT’S WRONG WITH A LITTLE BOREDOM?

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A while back I heard an interview with British rocker and cheesemaker(!) Alex James, late of the band The Blur (with which I am utterly unfamiliar, being a high culture man*). At one point in a discussion about cars, the host asked what kind of car Alex drives, to which the response was, “a black van, with seven seats, for the kids.”
“TV screens?” asked the host.

“Oh, no, not TV screens. I think it’s really important for children to get bored in cars. No TV screens. Dearie me, no.”
I suspect that many of us know exactly what James meant. He went on to say that sitting in a car on Sunday drives listening to Top 40 songs was how he became interested in music—he invented his own entertainment in the face of “boredom,” and he made a career out of it. In point of fact, I doubt that Alex was ever bored for long—he figured out how to make lemonade out of lemons, or at least how to turn pop songs into music that entertained him, that inspired him.
It’s not that I’m a big believer in forcing kids be bored. On the wall of my office I have a lovely printed quotation from Elbert Hubbard, “Boredom is a matter of choice, not circumstance.” Our own kids learned pretty quickly not to profess boredom but to find something, quick, to occupy their attention.
Lately I keep hearing how boring school is. All lectures are boring, all textbooks are boring, all homework is boring—except of course in the magical Schools of the Future, in which the battle against boredom will be won by stimulating work, scintillating projects, teachers with minimized roles, and heaps of technology, which adults seem to believe all children find intrinsically interesting.
This is all good. Keeping students’ interest in school has long been recognized as the key to success, and my experience supports this supposition. I’m not sure, however, that we are obligated to turn school exclusively into an entertainment zone, where every moment and every instructional experience is simply a rollicking good time, every teacher a potential Comedy Central Emmy winner.
I suspect that student boredom has a long and honorable history. One might suppose that some of the child prodigies of the past, particularly in the sciences, found formal education exceptionally boring, and responded by choosing—as Elbert Hubbard suggests—to find something interesting to do with their underoccupied minds. Pretty clearly such big brains as Gates, Jobs, and Wozniak needed something more exciting to do with their heads than schoolwork. The Computer Age, it seems safe to suggest, was built on a solid foundation of boredom.
There’s another thing. Even when we’re complaining about the current state of schools we tend still to get excited about students who are very good at it—the kids who manage to put their all into every assignment and even every quiz. Nearly forty years of informal investigation have yielded up a theory on these kids, and a general theory about student success in general.
The theory is this: The kids who most succeed in school are those who manage to find an element of interest—a topic, a quirky detail, an original (or at least unmentioned by text or teacher) observation or insight—in each class, in each assignment. These kids seem to contain some spark that takes the most banal of tasks (and such tasks are necessarily a part of school, try as we might to infuse them with an attractive sparkle). If we want to create a generation of better and truly engaged students, the problem is not just to make school more interesting—as important as this is—but also to help kids become more interested; interest is a two-way street. (It’s also the subject of an unpublished manuscript of mine: what families can do to help their children find their interests.)
I’m not going to offer up a diatribe about the passive nature of so much of what entertains children in our society. It’s true, but not universal. I’m not going to rant about busy parents who either overschedule themselves and their children or pay too little attention to the actual interests of their kids—though there are some powerful implications about the dangers of this in Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators, in which Wagner suggests that feeding kids’ interests is going to be the way we can innovate ourselves into a better future.
Mostly what I’m offering here is a gentle grump in favor of allowing kids to be bored, not for the sake of boredom, obviously, but as a way of creating the conditions in which they will find, just like that British musician, how to interest themselves and construct on the foundation of this interest some true passion. Of course we must help them; but not, I think, too much.
*OK, I confess. The show in question was the British Top Gear. I like cars, and I always have; I like James May, who enjoys placing himself in the role of an educator and who is clearly often delighted by both the things he learns and the things he wants to teach. Clarkson? Appalling, I know; I really do know. But he’s the price I pay to follow one of my interests. And he’s seldom boring.

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