A Conversation about Boredom in Jewish Education with Dr. Erica Brown
A while back, as I was doing research for a new book, Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism, and I suggested the topic to a rabbi who asked me to be the scholar-in-residence at his synagogue. His first reply was, “I don’t think that’s an issue in my shul.” I laughed to myself. It’s an issue in everyone’s shul. It’s an issue in every school. It’s an issue in everyone’s Jewish life. It’s just that we’re too afraid to talk about it because if we are really honest about boredom, then we have to put in a great deal of effort to change Jewish life and make it vibrant again.
In the book, I have a chapter on boredom in the classroom and am fascinated by the assumptions that both teachers and students make about how boring the learning process is and is destined to be. These assumptions are not, by and large, articulated by teachers but become part of the banter of students in hallways, carpools and Shabbat tables. We need only scratch the surface to learn which teachers and which subjects are tedious. In speaking to one of my children about a good report card which mentioned that this particular child was, nevertheless, often working on other subjects quietly and must be distracted, this child said to me, “I am totally bored in that class but instead of talking to other people, I do work at my desk. What should I do?” Do teachers think seriously about whether or not they are wasting students’ time with digressions, low-energy facilitation or busy work? I’m not sure. I include an excerpt from the book below to help us surface a discussion on a topic we don’t talk about enough: boredom in the classroom.
…The assumption that school will be boring goes unchallenged perhaps because there are no easy solutions and because it may feed into a much larger cultural assumption about life generally and about Jewish life specifically. Do we educate in a boring manner because life is ultimately a reflection of our education?
Considering how pervasive anyone familiar with schools must know it to be, it is quite remarkable how little attention is given to boredom of any sort in the vast literature, and subliterature, of education. It is perhaps just taken for granted that it will be prevalent and does not matter or, by the more optimistic, that it is part of the school’s business to get their clients used to what is so much a part of the outside world, training in reality or, by the more ignorant, that it does not exist there in any significant measure. i
In other words, school does indeed prepare us for life, a life of boredom and limited expectations by manufacturing an environment which produces prolonged tolerance for a lack of stimulation. In the words of Nietzche, ‘What is the task of all higher education? To make a machine of man. What are the means to this end? The student must learn to be bored.” What is learned so often in school corridors and libraries is a dulling of the senses. At its worst, school teaches us through all of its implicit messaging that curiosity, self-satisfaction, meaning, amusement and self-knowledge are to be found elsewhere, somewhere outside the classroom, if they are to be found at all.
Boredom in school, as elsewhere, is of course nothing new in itself, but its growth and its intensification derive from the sense that students – and increasingly teachers, too – have that the, to some extent inevitable, tedium and grind of study and learning, and the prolonged subordination to authority, are no longer really worth it; or that, while they may be unavoidable en route to the desired goals, they are little more than hurdles that have to be jumped in order to satisfy the bureaucratic and largely meaningless requirements of absurd institutions. Earlier students in school had a firm sense that whatever they had to go through was somehow intrinsically worthwhile, even if it was dreary and distasteful. It fitted in with what people everywhere and consistently held to be true, right and desirable, and if one found it otherwise, then the fault lay in oneself and not in the system. ii
When school ceases to feel intrinsically worthwhile but is only a set of obstacles to be overcome, then students do the minimum required to suffer through it because it is only a means to an end. As educators and parents, we enhance this approach and attitude by emphasizing grades rather than learning, standardized testing rather than curiosity and next steps rather than present engagement. Doing well at any stage of education is important because it will help secure a prized place in the next institution, leading to a successful career and a presumed happy life. Rarely do we emphasize the value of the moment or teach for it.
i Sean Desmond Healy, Boredom, Self and Culture (Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1984): 129.
ii Healy: 124.
Page 4 of 4