Select Page

School is Boring

School is Boring

by William H. Benson

August 24, 2017

     Generations of students have said, “School is boring!” One person pointed out that school bores students because learning is difficult, and that “boredom” and “difficult” are one-in-the-same. When a serious student pushes aside all distractions, un-clutters his mind, and listens in quiet silence as the teacher explains a difficult concept, boredom can and will sneak in.

     A journalist named Manoush Zomorodi has started a campaign that calls for a “digital detox” program. In her two books—Bored and Brilliant: The Lost Art of Spacing Out, and Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self—she suggests that at least for an hour every day we should lay aside the tweets, text messages, e-mails, television, and social media, and experience sixty minutes of profound boredom.

     She argues that when we practice boredom, when we refuse to reach for the cell phone, it is then that our brains slip into the “default mode.” We day dream. We make connections. We set autobiographical goals. We give the unconscious part of our minds permission to think in new channels, to think of new and even brilliant ideas, and to jumpstart our creativity. Zomorodi says, “there is a connection between boredom and original thinking.”

     That, I say, is an interesting idea.

     The writer Ann Lamont pointed out in a recent TED talk that “every single electronic device will work better if on occasion you turn it off, let it rest, and then reboot it, including yourself.”

     In Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he suggests that it is e-mail and social media that prevent us from experiencing moments of “deep work.”

     Newport offers four rules. Build deep work rituals. Embrace boredom. Quit social media. Drain the shallows, the duties that are routine and trivial. He says, “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, and what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”

     Most reviewers glow with enthusiasm for Newport’s book and give it five out of five stars, but the few nay-sayers criticize its length. One critic says, “Not worth reading—spent a lot of time. Would be absolutely sufficient to read an article on the topic. Maybe two. I like the idea, but it is repeated all over again without adding anything useful.”

     Another says, “Boring and a waste of money.” A third says, “Surprisingly shallow. Can be summed up with ‘focus’ and ‘limit distractions.’ I just saved you 270 pages and three hours.” In other words, to the critical readers, Deep Work is not as deep as it is shallow.

     A remedy for difficult and boring: engage in constructive criticism, like Newport’s critics did. A good student will ask herself certain questions often: Do I agree with the writer? Do I agree with the professor? Do I disagree with this concept? How can I improve this?” Students can learn much if they step onto the path of serious criticism, rather than follow the road of passive acceptance.

     The dialectic philosophers, Marx and Engels, labelled their formal criticism as “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.” The Chinese call it “yin and yang,” two forces that complement and interconnect with each other. Students can simplify the process by listing on paper the “pro’s and con’s” of a decision.

     When we question everything that we see and hear and read, when we invert ideas on top of their heads, when we think and act and talk like a critic, it is then that we might learn something useful.

     David Denby, the film critic, points out in his book, Great Books, that Homer and the other ancient Greek authors worked “anagnorisis” into their works. That is the moment in a literary work when a character recognizes another person, and sees what that person represents. For example, in Homer’s Odyssey, anagnorisis happens when Odysseus sees Penelope, his wife, after years of separation. Denby says “these are tortuous scenes of shame and love and recognition.”

     On occasion, in a classroom, a student will wake up, hear the teacher’s words, and recognize something that he or she is saying. The thought resonates inside that student. Difficulty is conquered. Boredom flies out the window. Alas, those precious moments are fleeting. 

     A determined student was asked if a class she had already taken was difficult. She, in turn, asked, “By what terms are you defining difficult—by frequency, intensity, or duration?”

     Benjamin Franklin said, “When a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” He also said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”