Wednesday, December 1, 2010

5 things I learned about boredom from unschooling

Guest Post by kate. Cross posted at UnSchooled

I remember the first time I was ever bored. It was at The Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia. I was sitting on the floor, and a man was delivering a lecture about geology to a group of us homeschoolers. I was probably seven or eight. He was holding up different rocks. He had been holding up rocks for an hour. He had a big plastic case with drawers in it. In each drawer was a rock. We were supposed to sit there and listen and listen and listen. A strange feeling crept over me. All I could think about was how much I wanted to leave. Time felt slow. I didn’t care about the rocks. Not even a tiny bit. I wasn’t sure how to distract myself. I wasn’t sure what to daydream about, because I actually didn’t have much experience with daydreaming.

(I’ll never be a geologist…source)

I think my relationship with boredom has been different from most people’s. Maybe this has a lot to do with the unique composition of my brain, my particular weirdnesses, and my unshakable penchant for peanut butter milkshakes. But more likely, it has to do with being homeschooled. I’m trying to figure out what I’ve learned about boredom. Here are five things:

Learning is not boring when it’s not called “learning.”
It sounds like a really un-catchy bumper sticker. But there’s a problem with how people define learning. Today I was walking down Broadway on my way to buy jelly donuts for my class (to celebrate Chanukah*), and I overheard a little girl saying to her father, “But police don’t have to go to school to be police.” The father said, laughing, “Police have to go to school like everyone else. Where else would they learn”
School is where you learn. We all know that. Yet classrooms are boring. I know. I got bored in college all the time. And then I got bored in grad school. And everyone around me seemed to be having the same experience.

But as a homeschooler, I was rarely bored. I think this might have been because learning was usually wrapped up in something else. There weren’t any subjects. Or assignments. There wasn’t any sitting unless it was because I had to sit. There was a reason for everything. And the reason wasn’t, “You have to learn this.”

When someone else decides for you what is worth knowing, and what’s important to learn, it’s likely to feel arbitrary and out of context. This is even worse when the person telling you what to think about is someone you don’t respect.

Like my Hebrew School teacher who pinched my cheeks with her impossibly long red nails and told the class stories about all the football players she’d been friendly with when she was a teenager. Once she even brought in a picture of herself with the football team.

Hanging out in a group is boring.
I know. I’m not allowed to say this. This is one of those taboo subjects. I’m supposed to love socializing in a group, to prove that homeschoolers are normal. But hanging out in a group (let’s say…more than six people) is boring. People rarely talk about anything in detail, and they don’t share information that they are willing to share one on one. If one person is loud and annoying and makes a lot of jokes, often everyone else has to play along with them. The conversation gets stuck, or it moves too quickly. You don’t get to learn much about people’s lives. In college, I was shocked when my entire freshman music ed class automatically began to eat all of their meals together. It would take about an hour longer than when I ate alone, and people would look at me funny when I didn’t laugh at the antics of the enormous, flailing guy who always took control of the discussion.
It’s still like this, as an adult. The dynamics don’t change that much. Even now, I have to convince myself to go to parties. Most of the time, I can’t. I think about what I might be able to accomplish in the time it will take to stand around making small talk with people I’ll probably never see again, and I can’t make myself budge.

Which is why I think I am a social failure, on some level. At least, I fail to be interested in a kind of socialization that most people seem unable to be happy without.

As a kid, I did a lot of stuff by myself, and it was too much fun. I never had to be in a big group of other kids, and I never had any desire to. My brother did, which is why he went to school at fifteen. We get along really well, as long as he doesn’t bring all his friends over.

Sitting still is boring (work is boring).
It just is. Especially if you have to sit still for long periods of time. Unless you’re writing a book. But if you’re not, your body starts to stagnate. You get tired. You stop caring about things. Olivia Judson explains in the New York Times what’s going on and why sitting is bad.
It’s strange that people are forced to sit for so long every day. When I worked in an office, I felt really self-conscious about moving around in my seat. I was careful not to get up and go to the bathroom too many times. Or the water cooler. I started fidgeting and I wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just sit still like a normal person?

(This guy is clearly missing the point. It’s all about walking over to it, not drinking from it. source)
Most types of work that people I know do involve sitting still in order to complete tasks assigned by someone else (often someone you don’t particularly respect).

4. It’s next to impossible to get bored when you are writing a book.
I spent a lot of time writing books as a homeschooler. They were terrible, almost without exception. In the one I wrote when I was fourteen, the hero is this blind mage named Drayuuk Cuare who is more powerful than everyone else in the world of Kaesk (and all six other worlds). His first line is “I see. Let me take a look at this.” I mean, come on. It took me three years to catch that mistake.

Writing a book takes a lot of time and patience and research and attention to detail. You have to study the way people behave. You have to think about communication. It takes a lot of passion.I can still feel exactly what it’s like to write the last sentence. Or the first. Or to figure out the plot twist. It is thrilling in a way that nothing else is thrilling.

Education is supposed to be about all of these separate subjects that, mastered individually, while sitting still and listening, create that precious state of well-roundedness that even the middle ranking private liberal arts colleges feel entitled to demand from their applicants these days. But try just doing one thing for a while. Building a car, inventing a language, or writing a book. It’s more fun. And you learn a lot.

But, on the flipside, you may never want to stop inventing languages or writing books. And writing books is not a practical way to make a living.

I don’t know how to be a proper adult because I don’t know how to deal with being bored
Homeschooling spoiled me for the adult world. I never learned the value of the kind of work that provides the majority of the population with a livelihood. As a result, I’m forced to be creative, even when I feel really, really lazy. Other people accept boring jobs that allow them to make lots of money, or at least enough money to survive. I can’t convince myself to accept a boring job. Even when I think I should, in order to learn an important lesson about growing up and living in the world. It never feels worthwhile.

At the same time, I’m arrogant about my relationship with boredom. I’m proud of refusing to do things that I find dull, even when other people find them essential. And I’m worried about what will happen when I have less control over my time. Like when I have kids someday, or when I have to support my entire family on a waitress salary. Or something.

The first time I was bored, I was caught off-guard. I’d never thought rocks were boring before. I played with them in the driveway and in Mom’s garden. I could stack them and roll them against each other for hours. I examined each one, looking for rose quartz, which was prettier than a diamond because of its pink blush. But boredom is an easy skill to acquire, and it came to me as naturally as it does to most people. I’m no academic genius. I like to be entertained.

(Some of the characters in my books definitely looked like this. Mysterious robes are crucial. source)

Kate Mende-Fridkis Berring shares with innovative educators the perspective of a student who never attended a traditional K-12 setting. As she shares in her blog on the topic, she liked it. Kate blogs at Unschooled and is an editor at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. She recently received a Master's in Religion from Columbia University and is the lay cantor at Congregation Kehilat Shalom in central New Jersey.


  1. I wasn't home schooled, but it was comforting to read this.

    This one statement hit a chord with me more than any other, "Which is why I think I am a social failure, on some level. At least, I fail to be interested in a kind of socialization that most people seem unable to be happy without."

    I'm a guy who couldn't care less if 'name-the-sports-team-for-the-season-and-city-I-happen-to-be-in' wins or loses. World Cup? Who cares? But put more than 4 guys together for a social event and I'm sipping my drink silently as the great "Who is better?" debate rages on.

    Put me in a party and I look for the person ready to engage in a nerdy conversation one-on-one.

    Boredom is an externally inflicted thing... and something I think school does too often 'to' kids.

    Thanks for a great, and insightful, and engaging post!

    1. Here here, David! I completely feel the words you have posted, along with Kate's article above. For me what rang true was this comment: "I can’t convince myself to accept a boring job. Even when I think I should, in order to learn an important lesson about growing up and living in the world. It never feels worthwhile." That is me, to the tee!

      All the best,
      Wendy Monette

  2. Hi David,

    Thanks for this comment! I write a lot about education and being a young woman, and the experience of being a girl, but I don't often take time to think about the perspective you're writing from here.

    It's true that this stuff doesn't just apply to homeschoolers. It applies to nerds everywhere :)

    I have homeschooled friends who are incredibly social, and schooled friends who are completely introverted. I think homeschooling (in general) just gives people more room to be more of whatever it is they already are.

    Love your blog, by the way!

  3. I begged my mother to homeschool me throughout high school! If I had been as eloquent as you are here, perhaps I would have been able to convince her!

    Sitting in Econ lecture today, I couldn't help thinking about this blog, and then I packed up and left! Econ is not the "dismal" science at all; Econ is the dismal department! My professors seem to have specialized in making this awesome science really, really boring!

    McEducation is the silent killer in society, isn't it!

    I would go on all night about how frustrating the education system is and how happy I am that somebody is finally saying something about it, but I must study for my finals which are next week! To what extent do you think I have a choice here? Nobody will pay attention to me unless I have at least a college degree, right? If this is actually the case, then (in terms of serving time) graduating from public high school was like getting out of prison, and going to lecture during college is like checking in with a parole office. Maybe a high school that is private would have been like a probation office? Homeschooling always seemed to mean FREEDOM to me. Time is the stuff life is made of, and so much time in young peoples' lives is being wasted!

    What would you propose as a solution to the current public education system (aka McEducation, if you agree with this label)? If I have kids some day, I'll probably homeschool them. But what about everybody else?

    I hope you don't mind...I'm sending this blog to my parents!

  4. @Sara, I totally agree with you. For many students K - 12 education feels like 12 or so years of classes they never signed up for. School should not be a place that feels like a sentence. It should be a place where we find our sentence. For more on that, read this post

    As far as college, I don't know. I guess for corporate America, you need that degree but there are numerous successful people who found there passion and found college irrelevant. And, what the heck do finals prepare you for??? Memorizing a bunch of irrelevant sh*t you'll forget the next day. Learning needs to be authentic, not manufactured, and seem relevant, not boring and fake to the learner.

    Despite having to do your time in school, I hope you are eventually able to find your sentence.

  5. Some of the greatest inventions came while people were fiddling around with things because they were bored.