A UGA professor of education asks: Why is school so boring?

Peter Smagorinsky teaches in the University of Georgia’s College of Education and is the recipient of the 2017 Distinguished Service Award from the National Council of Teachers of English. He is a frequent contributor to the AJC Get Schooled blog.

In this essay, he addresses a question asked by students for generations: Why does school have to be so boring?

By Peter Smagorinsky

I’m writing from Guadalajara, Mexico, where I work with the Universidad de Guadalajara developing and teaching a graduate program in literacy education. Yesterday’s reading and discussion focused on the experience of being an adolescent, especially in school. The authors of the reading, Sam Intrator and Robert Kunzman, pose a question that is agonizing for educators to answer: “What do youth have to say about their curricular experiences? Boring, Boring, Boring.”

I have long defended public education in this space, but must acknowledge this criticism has too much merit to ignore. As an educator, I must ask, "Why is school, which is designed to advance kids toward citizenship and prosperity, so tedious to the point of undermining its own goals?"

This observation has characterized the classroom experience for many generations. When I asked the teachers here in Guadalajara if the same is true of kids’ experiences in Mexico, they unanimously said "yes."

Mexican schools are underfunded to shocking degrees. Mexico is a nation of very low taxes, and consequentially minimal public services. Teachers have class sizes of up to 60, with total student loads for individual teachers approaching 400 students in some cases. Teachers are not allowed to give grades below a B-, which means kids who don’t work at all get essentially the same grades as kids who work hard, making school work optional. School buildings run on several shifts because there are too many students and too few school buildings. And when earthquakes affect 25 percent of the population, as has happened this month, there is little to rebuild with. Teachers in Mexico face greater challenges than their U.S. counterparts.

So why is school almost universally experienced as not simply a snooze, but a nightmare of tedium? Boredom is a function of disengagement and lack of interest. Often, kids are blamed for being unmotivated. That’s just not good enough, since that means all of the problems with schools can be blamed on kids. In my view, the problems are systemic and highly resistant to change.

I would trace many of the causes of boredom in school to the curricular suppression of emotions that drive the thinking and actions of both students and teachers.  American schools are founded on principles of European Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and the Scientific Revolution. These values are most evident in claims made on behalf of STEM fields as the only legitimate academic work that matters. President Trump has just validated this perspective with the dedication of $200 million to STEM fields, particularly computer education.

This value appears in daily comments from Get Schooled readers, from politicians, from philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates, and from many others. There is no correlative call to arms for the arts, the humanities, and other fields oriented to people’s emotional engagement with the world. Indeed, these areas are often considered “frills” ripe for cutting to save money better invested in turning everyone into an engineer, scientist, computer operator, accountant, etc., whether they are so inclined or not.

I am not demeaning STEM fields. I like sturdy bridges, balanced budgets, and a functional computer. I just don’t think everyone needs to be trained exclusively to specialize in these areas.

Enlightenment rationalism is at work across the curriculum to stifle any feelings teachers and students have about their schoolwork. In English, my subject, it means instead of reading literature that engages the heart, soul, and mind, stories are read to be “dissected,” taken apart analytically to bare their technical infrastructure. This value is central to the Common Core State Standards for literary study, themselves a relic of a critical approach known as New Criticism (which was new in the 1930s when it came into being). In this approach, students read like detectives within the four corners of the text, not allowing their emotions to cloud their analysis of authorial technique.

In history, Enlightenment values are at work when history is reduced to facts and figures, and not the fascinating reasons for why people come into conflict — reasons, I believe, that are highly emotional in origin. Feelings of disgrace and inferiority following World War I are often credited for the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, yet students tend to be tested as follows:

What was the treaty that ended WWI that laid some of the unrest that would later explode into WWII?

  1. Geneva Conference
  2. Treaty of Versailles
  3. Paris Peace Accords
  4. Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

The consequence of this value across the curriculum is that students tend to be put in relentlessly receptive roles, being lectured and tested on the facts of the discipline. Engaging emotionally is considered not only frivolous, it is believed to undermine clear thinking. Along with people like Jonathan Haidt, however, I would argue emotions not only do not undermine thinking, they are the drivers of how people think. Yet, the way schools are conducted, emotions are what gets driven out of the cognitive equation. I find that to be very anti-intellectual.

My example of the Common Core's emphasis on dispassionate analysis is only part of the problem. By embedding the assumption emotions are deleterious to clear thinking in educational standards, policymakers are not simply wrong. They make school crushingly boring for students. When you can’t emote, you are disengaged. When you are disengaged, it doesn’t matter much if you can remember which treaty ended which war. You won’t care why you even know it, and the odds you’ll remember it are very slim — a research finding that goes back to the 1920s.

Consider, then, what can’t be talked about in school: how kids feel about their worlds. If Haidt is right, and if religion and politics are fundamentally driven by emotion, then they become too contentious and passionate for school exploration and inquiry. Literature replete with potentially meaningful themes get reduced to analysis of literary form, avoiding what makes it compelling to readers and stifling students with questions like whether metonymy or synecdoche is at work in an instance of figurative language.

My first wife, who died young, was the product of a Catholic school education. She always said the best classes she took in school were the theology classes, because that’s where they talked about the meaning of life. The care and emotional investment in these discussions made them more lively, captivating, and memorable than the dry analytic content of the rest of school.

My answer to the  question — Why is school so boring? —  has a fundamental answer: School is designed to focus on rationalism, even with literary texts that are open-ended and laden with meaning driven by emotion. I am not calling out teachers here for their complicity in this system, because they are entering a prefabricated environment that has amplified the importance of dispassionate reason (which is a mirage) and suppressed the emergence of feelings in classrooms.

I am saying the assumptions built into policy, curriculum, and instruction are both wrong in conception —thinking and feeling cannot, in fact, be separated — and disastrous for the goal of school engagement. Until the people making policy understand these facts, school will be conducted into perpetuity as an exercise in extreme tedium, to the detriment of kids everywhere.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.