Reducing Boredom with Rigor, Not Relevance

by Guest Blogger
September 23rd, 2013

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.



  1. SOME people may mean “bringing kids’ faddish obsessions into the classroom” but there is a host of other, fairly well tested and acknowledge studies, that say knowing something relies on linking knowledge to previous knowledge or experience, and scaffolding discussions from what people’s experience affords. THAT is what most who deal with “relevance” regarding “boredom” mean. At least in my circles.

    I am frankly surprised at your ad hominem objections. Boredom really is not a condition, but, rather, a symptom of other and more complex conditions ranging from redundant information to information that has no “relevance” or context. Most students would be bored if they played games that only said “My Name is…” so, quite obviously, games say more. So also must an historian treating an obscure event from 1820 connect it to something that has some meaning (even if it is very different) today. So must a mathematician show that ideas like weight, volume, and speed have both a quantitative measure and a specific kind of relevance to other ideas like cooking, tasting, and riding.

    For that matter, “The Scarlet Letter” can be made “relevant” to “Twilight.” For reference, my great grand uncle was your friend Sam Clemens, and he understood how to create characters and situations that remain “relevant” to even you.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — September 23, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

  2. I had a lovely conversation with a mother at the dog park the other day. She moved to Colorado from London a few years back and our family just moved back to the state. I asked her about her experience with the local schools as she had three children in different public schools. Her comment was something like, “Teachers at ______ school seem to think school always needs to be entertaining. School does not always need to be entertaining.”

    I agree. Kids need to buckle down and learn stuff- like times tables. They need to know them inside and out to move forward academically. I encourage approaching content in ways that better promote concentration. For example, in Montessori classrooms students string beads and begin squaring numbers at early ages.

    Interest can be incorporated into the classroom with something as simple as technology for older learners or concrete manipulates for young learners without sacrificing content.

    Concentration does not need to yield to a fad.

    Interest does not need to dictate content.

    Comment by Della Palacios M.Ed. — September 23, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

  3. At some point we fell in love with the notion that school is about helping students achieve their dreams, and not about helping them become informed, productive members of a community. The kids will find their way on their own, and they sure don’t need anyone’s help in making everything about THEM. What they do need is a reminder that we are all here because of the sacrifices and contributions of others, and that self, while important, is not all-important.

    Comment by Mister D — September 23, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

  4. [...] is inevitable, relevance can be dangerous, and lonely persistence is essential.” The Core Knowledge blog (which I read because I share their belief in the value of actual knowledge) was arguing in favor [...]

    Pingback by The M Word | Research Made Relevant — October 14, 2013 @ 10:02 am

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