Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Bored students

A point on the Lazy Teachers note below (and the thread): I may have misrepresented either the study or my reaction to the study in the way I brought it to your attention. Sorry. I had a very simple point in mind (which the study, I think, confirms) and it is this: Students in high school are bored. We can argue all day why that may be so, but, in general it is my considered opinion that it has to do with the massive fact that students aren’t asked to do enough, and are not exposed to interesting things well enough. They are given much busy work, and not enough poetry or beauty or something good or high or noble to consider and think about. There was a very big international(UN funded?) study that came out of the Netherlands maybe ten years ago that compared students from dozens of countries. In general we didn’t fare too badly in the early years of schooling, but the US fared worse the longer the students stayed in school. So, by the time our students were in high school, they were at the bottom of the pack. This was also not surprising to me, but what was surprising is that for the first time in any study they gave a reason why: American students were more bored than students in other countries; the more they were in school (through high school), the more bored they became. That is an important fact. I regret that I am unable to find that study. My experience confirms this fact. Almost all students think their education in high school was boring.

Discussions - 12 Comments

Every class I ever held was focused around the good and the noble or the corrupt and evil and students had to render a judgment regarding the question and its impact upon the human condition. The reason why so few teachers ask those questions like what is virtue is they they themselves either don’t know or are afraid to attempt to answer the question because there may not be an answer (relativism) or they are scared of "imposing" a viewpoint on the student. It’s a lot easier, though much more boring, to stick to a couple of facts - "Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence" - or simplistic platitudes "He didn’t really mean all people are created equal." That kind of pablum.

Where do we begin fixing what goes on in high school classrooms? Two steps, equally unrealistic in the short run anyway: (1) Break the hold that professional "educators" have on teacher certification. (2) Ensure that high school teachers have both command of and enthusiasm for their material. When they make the (self)discovery that Tony reports, they will need both. (3) Somehow put adults firmly in charge of high school classrooms, as Tony is in charge of his. As long as teen culture reigns supreme, the good and the noble are friendless and forlorn. But to get there, principals and department chairs have to stop insisting upon lesson plans and "pedagogy" that get in the way. Which brings us back to (1).

I wonder if Tony has suggestions about how to produce and to liberate more teachers like himself?

Start by blowing up every school of "ed" in the country until there is not one iota of smoldering remains. Start there, Steve. And, send those eager future teachers to another building to get a master’s in their subject area so that they can bring it alive.

Steve’s three points are on the money, and they can be reduced to his number 1, as expressed more colorfully and illegally but Tony.

True enough, Peter, though I assure you I am no terrorist - everyone would be given plenty of time to leave the building, though they could not bring any "education" "books" with them. I wonder what the professor’s reaction would be as I would be taken away in handcuffs - "How do you feel?" My response: "Rather wonderful!" "Oh, I guess it’s OK then, though I feel uncomfortable with your response" Me: "Don’t judge me!"

A test.

Here’s a little test, and your ability or inability to answer it coherently and accurately is a decent barometer of the state of education and moral reasoning in the West.

Is using drugs such as cocaine and heroin for recreational purposes moral? For instance, is it moral to put together a little cocktail of cocaine, ecstasy and viagra, hook up with some hot brunette, and have a weekend slam session? {the question is about drugs, not fornication, but I threw that in to make sure that all understand the RECREATIONAL aspect of the question}. And if it’s not moral, WHY isn’t it moral?

I’ve asked that often of lawyers, and they’re usually silent on the subject.

That silence is indicative of a profound decline in the ability of Americans to engage in serious moral reasoning.

I think most of you are approaching this topic of student boredom from a humanities and/or social science perspective. In reality, I suspect lots of the boredom comes from business schools, law schools, engineering schools, and the hard sciences. As Steven Pinker notes, humans are not, by nature, particularly apt at such things as mathematics, science, and engineering, which explains why we need long training in those fields. For my money, "boredom" may be a sign that education is working...it’s pretty hard to sex-up calculus or biochemistry.

And, indeed, I think that’s the major problem. Students have been brought up on a steady diet of the most attention-focusing events possible for the typical homo sapien -- sex and violence. For all you libertarians out there, this is a classic example of "the market" destroying a culture. Television and the mass media have destroyed our attention spans and addicted us to social status, sex, and violence. Anything that can’t be sexed-up or bloodied (e.g., differential equations) is BORING. Unfortunately, our society REQUIRES millions of people to fulfill boring tasks on a daily basis.

Dain, I don’t know. I am completely a humanities guy and yet there is an inherent interest and beauty in all truth. In high school, I always loved math classes, particularly geometry. Why? The teachers showed a real love of mathematics and thought there was something inherently important about it. It taught me some basic reasoning even if I really have never used. But, more importantly, there was a beautiful symmetry of how all the truths fit together as you advanced and there is a real sense of achievement in solving difficult problems.

Tony, I suspect you are the exception when it comes to math. For every person who loves it, there are probably 5 who hate it.

I don’t love math, and I don’t practice it or read much about it. My point was simply that there is a wonderful beauty of truth that touches upon every subject and can be communicated to students who are expressing an interest in it by studying it. One more point, if science and math majors find it so boring then they probably either have poor teachers or should switch to a different discipline. They’re probably doing it for the wrong reasons.

Tony, Steve, Dain, Peter: Isn’t the simpler point that a teacher who loves his or her subject is infinitely more interesting and engaging than one who does not? The question then becomes, "How do you get teachers who love their subject?" For that, Tony’s illegal suggestion may have legal legs. I think there could be serious appeal in efforts (like those, for example, of the Ashbrook Center) to reach out to teachers who seriously love their subject--despite their "education."

Because I had some wonderful teachers, I was lucky enough to avoid the fate of the bored and boring teacher. My original plan on entering college was to become a high school history teacher--I didn’t know what else to "do" with a history major and "doing something" with it seemed to be an imperative order. I immediately changed my life plan when I met with an adviser to discuss my course selections and saw how LITTLE history I would be studying. The reason I wanted to teach history is because I love it and it gave me a justification for spending my parents money on a degree in that subject rather than in business as they (at the time) would have preferred. I asked the adviser how I would ever teach history if I didn’t study it. I swear to God, this was his answer: "Oh, you don’t have to know anything about history to teach it. You just have to be one chapter ahead of the students in the textbook." This was a respected academic adviser who was well-paid to advise incoming freshmen! "O.k.," I said, "then why am I here? I could do that now." "You’re just here to get your certification," he told me. In other words, my parents were just paying for a formal piece of paper that meant nothing. That was when I decided to forget the job prospects and just study what I like. I had to fight my parents about that for awhile, but they came around after much explaining. But that gets us to another problem: the intractable link in the minds of students, parents and employers between "college," "major," and "job." It’s very difficult to love anything if it is only a means to an end--and even more difficult to love the end if it is achieved in this boring way. Unless you are at a vocational school, shouldn’t college simply be about getting an education? Getting a job will come in due time.

Sorry, Julie, but given tuition these days, few families can approach college education as a "rounding experience." With increasing costs, the instrumental value of a university education become paramount. How much debt does your typical undergraduate incur to achieve a 4-year degree?

As for teachers who love their subjects, I suspect that is generally true. I think many professors love the subject matter, but that does not mean they necessarily enjoy teaching it to indifferent college students. And, the combo of competent subject-lovers and classroom dynamos is probably the exception rather than the rule.

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