Americans worship at the altar of doing. Whether moving west, improving technology or building business, Americans are always engaged in something. Idleness, reflection and downtime were luxuries associated with Europe’s nobility. Perhaps this is because of the Protestant ethic posited by Max Weber. Or perhaps it is because we have always been a commercial people. Whatever it is, America has always been a place of action.
I have written about this topic as it relates to schooling since before I had an internet connection. That is why it is heartening to see other authors finally take up this issue in a serious manner. My training as an educator revolved around always having students do something. Whether it is group work, bulletin boards or “accountable talk”, teachers across the country are trained to associate active hands and mouths with active brains. One of the implications of this has been the stress on tangible results. Learning must always produce something: a picture, an essay, test scores or a portfolio. In my view, one of the reasons why our education system lags behind the rest of the modern world is this myopic focus on action.
The idea of the soccer mom shuttling her kids from school to sports to piano practice reflects our obsession with occupying every minute of a kid’s day with some sort of activity. Inner city sports programs justify themselves by providing activities that keep kids “off the streets”. We seem to buy into the notion that idle hands are the devil’s playground. Throughout all of our attempts to fill every hour of every day with some sort of activity, we have never bothered to inquire after the value of idleness.
Idle time is a fact of life. No matter how on-the-go we try to be, there are always those moments in the day when there is simply nothing to do. As far as I know, there is not a single education philosophy around that trains kids in how to deal with idleness. Instead, idle time is when kids are left to their own devices. It is a time to facebook, play video games, watch television or otherwise be entertained. A dichotomy develops between the parts of the day when kids do what adults want them to do and when kids do what they want to do. It is the dichotomy between work and play. As adults, we too see time as a dichotomy between weekdays and weekends. We may work very hard Monday through Friday, but as soon as we are off the clock on a late Friday afternoon, many of us hit the bars, the movies or our couches for a little junk television. Work hard, play hard, consume and die is the pattern of life in the modern world.
The current education reform movement seeks to institutionalize this worship of doing. The billionaires and politicians who have taken such an active interest in our schools want to bombard kids with more standardized exams, more homework, more hours in school, more doing. No doubt, the assumption is that kids reared in this way will be assiduous workers, too engaged with tasks and chores to question anything. When it comes to those hours when kids are not in school, education reformers are silent. I do not believe this is an accident by any means.
The critics of education reform are only half right when they say standardized exams are a way to train the next generation of docile workers. The other half is about training the next generation to be passive consumers, especially consumers of entertainment. Television strings a series of disjointed images together that stay on the screen for around 3 seconds each. Facebook and Twitter profiles are strings of photos and blurbs that have very little relation to each other. Music today is a series of 3-minute songs whose melodies can be memorized in a few seconds. Video games are a series of stages and levels that can be conquered after a few tries. In the same way, standardized exams are a series of questions that require only a few seconds of sustained reading and thinking. It is perfect preparation to live in the era of the sound bite.
In the end, students trained on a diet of standardized exams and group exercises will see the TV, internet, radio and Playstation as their natural entertainment. As I have written before, I teach a part-time philosophy class whose aim is partially to get students to appreciate the time they get for thought and reflection. With all of the things inside and outside of education that aim to destroy the American attention span, it is my duty as an educator to expand that attention span. We run the risk of being thought of as “boring”, but it is a risk we must be willing to take. After all, if we with our college educations can see the joy of reading a long book or following a lecture from start to finish, then why can we not assume we can cultivate that joy in our students? At some point, kids must be presented with an alternative to the bubble-filling and accountable-talking that infests American education. If this alternative is not provided in at least one classroom, where will it ever be provided?
A few weeks ago, I went on a history teacher rant with one of my classes. I started off by assuring them that I knew exactly what was going through their heads at that very moment. I told them that I knew that a commercial jingle or popular song was all they were thinking of. They were amazed that I was right on the money. I told them that is the reason why, when they are sitting in a classroom, it is tough for them to stick with an idea for more than a few seconds. They might be able to start off following along alright, but eventually those sounds of pop culture creep back in and divert their attention. By the time they tune back in to class, they find that they are lost. Better to go back to the vacuous sounds of pop culture until the bell rings.
It is easy for me to say, since I rarely turn on the television and engage in Facebook or Twitter discussions. I do not even own a radio or a video game system. I resolved a long time ago to not give my mind over to the Moloch of the corporate pollution that parades around as “popular culture”. My idle time is spent reflecting, reading, writing and otherwise bettering myself in some way. I cannot remember the last time I was ever bored.
And those two words that we hear so often from students and adults, “I’m bored”, says it all. It is a sure sign that the person wants you, the listener, to entertain them. It is actually a very arrogant statement, as if your boredom is someone else’s problem. Someone who can so easily complain of boredom needs to be trained to not be bored. Bored people are boring. Our goal as educators should be to train students in such a way that they will have no reason to ever say those two ugly words ever again. Our goal should be to teach children to value their idle time as opportunities for reflection and self-betterment.