Varieties of boredom

For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on;
I tell you that which you yourselves do know

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene 2

Teaching is a profession with an odd, uneasy relationship with boredom. At once we are almost never bored, but seem to always run the risk of being boring. Teachers seem to find their subjects and what their students do endlessly fascinating. In fact, our enthusiasm runs the risk of boring anyone except other teachers, and even then at times. Writer and hispanophile Gerald Brenan cautioned, “Everyone is a bore to someone. That is unimportant. The thing to avoid is being a bore to oneself.” Indeed. If ever I’m in danger of boring myself then I really do have nothing to say.

One of my favourite works on boredom is Milan Kundera’s great novel, Identity. Kundera tells us, “There are three kinds of boredom: passive boredom: the girl dancing and yawning; active boredom: kite-lovers; and rebellious boredom: young people burning cars and smashing shop windows.”

We all feel passive boredom at times and perhaps this is more important than we realise. The philosopher, Walter Benjamin said that, “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.” If we’re forever being distracted, we will never pursue anything to mastery. This pursuit is the boredom of kite-lovers. Most of us possess a particular ‘kite’ we love. For some it is golf, for others crocheting. For me it is education. My capacity to pursue an idea must, I’m sure, seem exceedingly dull to some of my long-suffering friends and family members. In fact, my daughter said, on the publication of my most recent book, “Daddy, next time can you write about something interesting?” And, of course, what she means is, something interesting to her.

Anything complex outside our immediate experience can seem dull. F. Scott Fitzgerald suggests that boredom is something we need to acclimatise to early on: “You’ve got to go by or past or through boredom, as through a filter, before the clear product emerges.”

Boredom, Kundera says, is something of a luxury:

I’d say that the quantity of boredom, if boredom is measurable, is much greater today than it once was. Because the old occupations, at least most of them, were unthinkable without a passionate involvement: the peasants in love with their land; my grandfather, the magician of beautiful tables; the shoemakers who knew every villager’s feet by heart; the woodsmen; the gardeners; probably even the soldiers killed with passion back then. The meaning of life wasn’t an issue, it was there with them, quite naturally, in their workshops, in their fields. Each occupation had created its own mentality, its own way of being. A doctor would think differently from a peasant, a soldier would behave differently from a teacher. Today we’re all alike, all of us bound together by our shared apathy towards our work. That very apathy has become a passion. The one great collective passion of our time.

This is the idea that boredom stems from a lack of connection, a rootlessness search for entertainment and distraction. George Eliot expresses a similar thought in her novel Middlemarch:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the best of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

It’s the same variety of boredom which prompts students to ask for ‘a fun lesson’ and complain that anything which requires effort and is not immediately exciting is ‘boooring!’ This leads to the vandalism of complex ideas, the preoccupation with fun and engagement that so bedevils school as a microcosm of wider culture. As teachers, we are perhaps guilty of being complicit in “burning the cars and smashing the windows” of our subjects in order to entertain and appeal to our students’ jaded palettes. Everything should be bite-sized, easily digested and full of sensation, leaving us “well wadded with stupidity.”

When relating the dying days of his grandfather, Jean-Marc, one of the narrators of Identity, says,

I had just turned fourteen, and my grandfather – not the cabinetmaker, the other one – was dying. There was a sound coming from his mouth that was unlike anything else, not even a moan because he wasn’t in pain, not like words he might have been having trouble saying, no, he hadn’t lost speech, just very simply he had nothing to say, nothing to communicate, no actual message, he didn’t even have anyone to talk to, wasn’t interested in anyone any more, it was just him alone with the sound he was emitting, one sound, an “ahhhh” that broke off only when he had to take a breath. I would watch him, hypnotized, and I never forgot that, because, though I was only a child, something seemed to become clear to me: this is existence as such confronting time as such; and that confrontation, I understood, is named boredom. My grandfather’s boredom expressed itself by that sound, by that endless “ahhhh”, because without that “ahhhh” time would have crushed him, and the only weapon my grandfather had against time was that feeble “ahhhh” going on and on.

Sometimes the need to be heard outweighs any value our utterances might have. I recognise this. Writing can, sometimes, be an “endless ‘ahhhh'” into the void. Debating the difference between educational ideologies might be such an “endless ‘ahhhh'”. But as long as anyone feels the need to read and respond to these exhaled thoughts, there is reason enough to carry on.

If you find educational debate boring, for God’s sake, do something, anything else. It’s not for you. I have no problem with others finding my enthusiasms dull, after all, I’m equally bored by some of theirs. But I cannot imagine taking to Twitter to communicate my fervent hope that no one talk about football, or Patagonian politics just because I happen not to be interested. Why tell anyone? Football fans and Patagonian politicians would be rightly confused and irritated by my intrusion. There’s nothing wrong with finding a thing tedious, but some opinions are best kept to ourselves lest we ourselves become a bore. It’s a low blow to say that when people are bored it is primarily with themselves, but often it’s true.

Maybe the variety of boredom we feel is what marks us out and distinguishes us from others. French writer and art critic Edmond de Goncourt said, “There are moments when, faced with our lack of success, I wonder whether we are failures, proud but impotent. One thing reassures me as to our value: the boredom that afflicts us.” The impotent attempt to ridicule other people’s passions and shut down discussion is not the type of boredom I would want to be associated with. That’s not to say I want to endlessly take part in dead-end debates; arguing about ideas – good or bad – rarely changes minds. (You only have to read through the comments on this post to know that.) But I will continue to speak my truth.

The real reason I don’t care about ostentatiously communicating my ennui about subjects in which I have no interest is because they don’t threaten me. Maybe those at pains to tell others what they find boring do so because they actually feel threatened? If you have nothing to contribute, proclaim yourself bored. The philosopher, E. M. Cioran, noted that what’s true and important is often uninteresting: “If truth were not boring, science would have done away with God long ago. But God, as well as the saints, is a means to escape the dull banality of truth.” Maybe you need to escape the dull banality of truth? Fine. But don’t bore me with how much the truth bores you.

Finally, German intellectual and vociferous opponent of Nazism, Theodore Haecker advised that, “The one sure means of dealing with boredom is to care for someone else, to do something kind and good.” Instead of being publicly bored with education debate, why not do something kind and good instead?

Other useful (and interesting) blogs on this subject include Boredom by Toby French, Dangerous Conjectures by Horatio Speaks and Can a false choice be an object of research? by Greg Ashman.

15 Responses to Varieties of boredom

  1. 4c3d says:

    I wish I could find the text that said “Boredom is an essential part of learning and developing as a person”. I used this many times as a parent when my children said they were bored. Perhaps boredom is both a measure of engagement and of motivation, something we can pay attention to in order to review our focus and intent. I particularly like your suggestion about being threatened. “I’m bored” – the new “get out of jail free” (no effort required) card or I feel uncomfortable with what you are saying “You’r boring me”.

  2. When my children were young I had banned (yes, I am that kind of mum!) the word bored. If they were bored with what they were doing, then, if it was work they still had to complete it. If it was a game then they had to stop complaining and find another game. If they were doing nothing and said they were bored then, well then they had to get up and do something. They are now 21, 16 and 13 and still not allowed to say I’m bored to me!

    • 4c3d says:

      🙂 Mine never said they were bored after hearing “I’m glad, it shows I am doing my job as a parent and looking after you” a few times.

  3. David says:

    Hannah Arendt wrote in “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy” that loneliness is where the individual becomes bored and reaches out to dialogue with others–be it in direct communication, through reading or listening to music. When one cannot achieve that contact, the individual becomes overwhelmed with boredom, even in the midst of a great crowd. I might surmise that much of social media or other modern distractions are premised on alleviating boredom.

    What can be a bit alarming if one accepts Arendt’s ideas, is that morality comes from solitude–that the internal dialogue we have when left to our own thoughts is where thinking takes place. She separates this from isolation, which is the focus on something specific–be it a craft, work or study. She then goes on to argue that the mind shifts between these three, but that a morality built from a state of solitude begets Socrates, Plato and Kant. Morality built from loneliness begets Nietzsche.

    Given the ubiquity of the distractions surrounding our young people, I worry that thinking in solitude is increasingly replaced with ways of avoiding loneliness and bordeom, leading to indifference or adiophorization.

    • David Didau says:

      I think I probably prefer Nietzsche to Plato and Kant. Although I prefer Aristotle to all of them. Not sure what that says about me.

      I see solitude as a more contented variety of loneliness and discontent as the main driver of ideas.

      • David says:

        Regarding Nietzsche, I used to be more mixed on him until I read Jonathan Glover’s chapters in Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century. Glover connects Nietzschean thought to the atrocities of that century via the rejection of outer sources of morality, the emphasis on the hyper-individulistic “will to power” and “hardness” as an alternative to pity.

        He also quotes Yeats, who wrote in the margins of his copy of The Geneology of Morals: “But why does Nietzsche think the night has no stars, nothing but bats and owls and the insane moon?”

        If you really want to read something interesting that ties into this, try Zygmunt Bauman’s On Education, here he links Nietzsche to “techno-nihilistic capitalism”. He sees this as the “omnivorous capacity of consumer markets, their uncanny capacity to capitalize on any and every human problem, anxiety, apprehension, pain or suffering–their ability to turn every protest and every impact of a ‘countervailing force’ to its advantage and profit.”

        Bauman goes on by pointing to Tim Jackson’s Redefining Prosperity, where Jackson singles out Western culture’s “appetite for novelty” as being the main culprit for putting us on a path of consumerism, materialism and egoism (echoing Arendt in her essay “The Crisis of Education”). Bauman argues that we need a true cultural revolution to change the path we are on. With regards to education, he states: “However limited the powers of the present education system look, and it is increasingly subject to the consumerist game, it still has enough transformative powers left to be counted among the promising factors for such a revolution.”

    • 4c3d says:

      This may suggest then that boredom is good for us in some circumstances and perhaps in a controlled way. Boredom would appear then to encourages us to reach out to others encouraging sociability and perhaps stimulating creativity. For me it would be the nature of that reaching out that is important. Whether it is an internal manifestation or one that is the result of an overwhelming noise from another source could mean it is either a positive act or one of shutting out the “noise”, a mere distraction where we avoid the state of mind that boredom could lead to. A sort of anesthetic to the mind. The question is then is why would we avoid boredom if it gives us the opportunity to think. Because thinking is hard? Because we do not like the answers or insights thinking gives us? Maybe we can accept isolation ( a number of hobbies actually create it) and the thinking it delivers because it holds boredom at arms length. We can easily switch to an activity that will occupy our mind if the thinking gets too hard (or dark!). Boredom on the other hand can create a state where activity is effectively inhibited, we are unable to chose what to do even if presented with many options. When bored we are not permitted a quick release, we have to endure until something breaks the mood. I am not sure if avoiding isolation and hence the opportunity for boredom or loneliness through distraction leads to indifference or moral neutrality but I can see it prevents us entering a state of mind where we come to understand wider considerations other than ourselves.

      • David says:

        I think she is dividing boredom from isolation and solitude, in that it does not lead from one to the others. Rather, boredom/loneliness are drivers away from thinking through solitude or isolation. Rather than insert a quote here, I’d recommend reading the essay, as well as the one entitled “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship,” both to be found in the collection Responsiility and Judgment.

        I would suggest that, as educators, we have an obligation to our students to help them develop a frame of mind that does not get bored easily–that we give them opportunities for reflection and thinking. In a world full of distractions, this seems to be a skill that is vital for their well-being.

  4. At a time of late night potential boredom, this article certainly gave me a much less boring alternative. Thank you!

  5. Biljana says:

    Boredom is just boredom, it has nothing to do with learning, there are always fun and interesting way to teach and learn. It all depends on who your students are. If the pupil related the knowledge gained to a positive experience – he will remember it for good and the motivation for more new knowledge will be great.

    I love pupil shows, stories for kids, pantomime shows and similar, everything that get kids to start thinking and provokes their imagination. I loved this Christmas Show with the West End in Schools company These guys were great and kids started writing them letters about their impressions form the show, they were drawing pictures and had a lot of questions – which is all positive in my book. So fun is good and it provides long term results.

    • David Didau says:

      “So fun is good and it provides long term results.” Hmm.

      Watching cartoons is fun. Drinking beer is fun. Banter is fun. The long term results they lead to might not be positive.

  6. […] For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth, Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech, To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on; I tell you that which you yourselves do know Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene 2 Teaching is a profession with an odd, uneasy relationship with boredom. At once  […]

  7. […] they have no interest in. If you’re bored by the debate, fine. Go do something else. In this post I wrote about the varieties of boredom and said […]

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