Boredom Has Lessons to Teach Students

I did not like my college composition instructor. But she was wise about what I needed to learn and she did me much good. Professors who have that exhausting assignment must be a special breed.

Leave it to another college comp teacher to write a short essay that clarifies, better than anything I have read, the disconnect between high school and college that not only troubled me as a student but is still poisoning American secondary schools.

The essay, Boredom’s Paradox, was buried on a back page of a recent Education Week. The author was Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta who is so well known, I was surprised to learn that he taught freshman comp. I always thought that was scut work reserved for graduate students. Bauerlein analyzed why teenagers drop out, with a twist that made much of what I have read about how to improve high schools seem inane and counterproductive.

He cited a 2006 study by the public policy firm Civic Enterprises that found 47 percent of high school dropouts thought their classes were boring, and 69 percent said school did not motivate or inspire them. Most believed they could handle the work, but didn’t want to. He said the 2010 High School Survey of Student Engagement found 66 percent of students were bored “at least every day.” Their biggest complaint was the uninteresting and irrelevant material they had to learn.

Bauerlein summed up expert advice for curing these ills: “We need energetic instructors to present pertinent material in lively ways. Teachers should draw more assignments from real-world situations and create projects that are collaborative by nature, or culturally relevant. ... If students recognize direct connections between schoolwork and their personal lives, including their future employment, academic engagement will rise, and they’ll stay in school and proceed to college and the workplace ready to thrive.”

This seemed too pat to Bauerlein. He had a thought: assume the experts were right and all those potential dropouts graduated and headed to college because of their livelier and more relevant high schools. What next?

Disaster, he predicted. “Likely, they’ll end up in a situation that is the opposite of what they experienced in high school,” he said. In most cases they would have to take freshman comp, a course that Bauerlein said was “universally dreaded by 18-year-olds.”

“Few of them would enjoy grammar exercises or paragraph development or the revision process,” he said. “And chances are they don’t easily relate to the readings,” even at a selective college like his that gets some of the country’s most motivated students. “Many also have to take a math or another quantitative-skills course — subject matter irrelevant to students interested in the arts and humanities,” he said. Required history and civics courses would also be “thoroughly alien to their job ambitions and leisure activities.”

I occasionally get e-mails from readers who grumble about today’s students forgetting the importance of applying the seat of one’s pants to the seat of one’s chair until they master the lesson. Bauerlein, a relatively youthful 54, makes the point better, although like most everyone else who feels this way, he is not sure of the solution.

“Boredom is not always something to be avoided,” he concluded. “It is to be accepted and worked through.”

I have seen high school teachers help students work through that boredom by creating a team spirit through which students help one another overcome ennui to attain some goal, like passing an Advanced Placement test. But how many of them are capable of being tough enough to actually teach kids how to make that happen?