Boredom as an Educational Tool

The November/December Utne Reader has one of the best articles on unschooling I’ve ever read in Astra Taylor’s The Democratic Education of Unschoolers. Far from the author’s countercultural upbringing, my own childhood was utterly and conventionally suburban. But what she says about boredom rings true:

Boredom: that’s the big one. It’s boredom we were released from. Everyone knows that school is about the management of boredom, the administration of mental fatigue. On the one hand, it acclimates children to clerical-technical piecework so that as adults they can work long hours at jobs they will more than likely describe as uneventful, mind-numbing, soul-destroying, or something that must simply be done and stoically endured. But school also inculcates boredom as an attitude, a habit, a way of being in the world, as all they’re really entitled to feel. It’s an ethos, one that lingers in adult life. I’m always stunned when people say, “Weren’t you bored at home?” Do these people remember being in school? Schools are factories of ennui, restlessness, lethargy, monotony, tedium. Think of the pencil chewing, the mindless drooling, the desperate passing of notes, the desire to disappear, the obligatory raising of hands and answering of questions, the trying to look busy when you’re about to doze off, the wish to be anywhere in the world beyond the window.

For us boredom was something to be passed through: it was a pit stop along the road to becoming engaged. “When you’re bored, you’re boring,” my mother would say.

My kids would undoubtedly recognize the tone of that remark—when they ventured to say they were bored, my own version was “Not my problem. There’s plenty around for you to do. Pick something.”

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