“Boredom is rage spread thin.”—Paul Tillich
“I do love knitting patterns.”—Professor Dumbledore
Many teachers are familiar with those moments in school assemblies or large classes when a single action or a small chain of words provokes a response that suddenly amplifies into a cheer, a wave of laughter, or a rumbling hubbub. (Though for regrettably many teachers and their students, the momentary phenomenon at assemblies is silence.) Then, as the moment passes, the assembled students return to their modicum of shared attention and disguised private daydreams. (The silence of gadget-twiddlers is another phenomenon entirely.) One sign of the good school is that its assemblies proceed in an equilibrium of paid attention and momentary ebullience: such gatherings show that its students have learned to balance shared experience and private enthusiasm and know how to subordinate private enthusiasm to public attention at need. People leading these assemblies also have a sense of what will play at an assembly and what will not.
But this kind of attention implies something worth attending to: discipline will carry students or their teachers only so far. If students have to spend time to “learn” “Jungle Gym Math” in the classroom, they will sooner or later stop paying attention: you can’t force someone to be interested in paint peeling. The same goes for assemblies where they (and their teachers) have to listen to baloney.
The usually expected reaction to this kind of trial is angry boredom, for “boredom is rage spread thin” according to the theologian Paul Tillich. But boredom of a different kind can also be a sign of acedia. In either case, as Professor Barzun notes, boredom is highly destructive.
But it is also possible to turn away from dull conditions of life in good ways, or in ways that are not inherently vicious. Hence the old tradition of striking out to “seek one’s fortune,” exemplified by Dr. Johnson and David Garrick, who hit the road together—Johnson eventually becoming the greatest man of letters of his day, and Garrick the greatest actor. Hence also the more modern tradition of “garagism,” in which the ambitious or otherwise not easily satisfied young person composes and plays music or invents and tests gadgets and Franklin stoves in his garage. And of course there are those like Bashō who are wonderfully present-minded while being able to cast imaginatively across time and space, admiring old ponds with frogs jumping in and silent ancient temples alike.
It would be nice to think that schools help young people on their way to find life interesting or rewarding, but in many cases that is wishful thinking. It is certainly wishful thinking in the case of Jake Davis, a recently arrested member of the Anonymous internet collective. One of a number of very highly intelligent young people now shaking up the wired world, Davis, a Shetland Islander, metaphorically hit the road, finding fame and felony charges by age 18. His interviewer, expecting to find a pimple-scratching sociopath, was struck not just by how articulate he is but also by how unmarked by anger, acedia, or gaucherie. The reason I write about him this week is that he craved—and still craves—learning but got little or none of it from his school, where the only thing he remembers learning was how to knit. I am not belittling the pastime of aunts, grannies, headmasters and hackers; I am wondering what his school was doing while he was going there, in class or in assembly. It is poignant to find out that he hopes he will be able to read and learn more in prison when he finally goes there than he did in school.