James Fenimore Cooper assures me that Mark Bauerlein is correct: Boredom is inevitable, relevance can be dangerous, and lonely persistence is essential. Fortunately, I learned that lesson in high school. No, I never grew to like Cooper’s endless descriptions of mundane (to my 16-year-old eyes) things. Thanks to my insightful teacher, I understood the context in which that miserable prose had been written, wondered at the idea that it had ever been popular, and saw its importance in early American life.
I also saw the danger of relevance—at least as is commonly defined in education. Education is not for the here and now; it is preparation for leading a good life (including grasping that defining a good life has been contemplated for thousands of years). What is most relevant to students’ education is what will best prepare them for seeking their best path in life.
And yet, when people talk of making education relevant, they mean bringing kids’ faddish, temporary obsessions into the classroom. Some of the ideas are harmless, like giving the word problems in math sports themes. This might give students a pleasant few minutes to space out about Saturday night’s basketball game, but it doesn’t change the math. Other attempts at relevance are truly harmful. There are the pitfalls of edutainment that Bauerlein described. There are also lost educational opportunities, such as when The Scarlet Letter is dropped to make room for Twilight. Students interested in Twilight will have no trouble reading it on their own or with their friends. The Scarlet Letter, however, becomes more meaningful with the careful guidance of a knowledgeable teacher.
James Fenimore Cooper was not relevant to me as a teenager. He was relevant to me as an American—and I was fortunate to have a teacher who explained why.
I kept plodding through that Norton Anthology (where else does a teenager read Cooper?) and was rewarded many times over. For very different reasons, I was grabbed by Thomas Paine, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry David Thoreau, Samuel L. Clemens, W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and many more.
As some of the comments on Bauerlein’s post noted, academic content is actually quite compelling, especially with a thoughtful teacher. While I agree with Bauerlein that working through boredom is an essential skill, I also agree with the commenters that much boredom in class ought to be addressed because it has unproductive sources: watered-down curricula and insufficient teacher guidance. The world is beautiful and fascinating—studying it through literary, scientific, artistic, mathematical, and historical lenses can be a wondrous journey.
Wondrous image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Tomorrow, I’ll take another look at reducing boredom by strengthening the early grades.