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To see how education can offer a space for contending with the ubiquitous problem of boredom, I first need to begin to define what boredom is and understand how it constitutes a “problem” for the pursuit of a flourishing life. The most vexing kind of boredom is what Heidegger describes as “existential boredom,” characterized by a disenchantment with life and a struggle to find meaning. In contrast to situational boredom, which ebbs and flows depending upon external conditions, existential boredom is often an enduring condition that, while affected by material conditions, is not reducible to them. Situational boredom points to a clear and immediate solution in some kind of action, while the cure for existential boredom is often unclear. Even more problematic, as I will argue, the avoidance of situational boredom intensifies existential boredom. The pervasive cures for situational boredom are the causes of existential boredom.
Boredom is an enduring problem. In response, schools often do one or both of the following: first, they endorse what novelist Walker Percy describes as a 'boredom avoidance scheme,' adopting new initiative after new initiative in the hope that boredom can be outrun altogether, or second, they compel students to accept boring situations as an inevitable part of life. Both strategies avoid serious reflection on this universal and troubling state of mind. In this book, Gary argues that schools should educate students on how to engage with boredom productively. Rather than being conditioned to avoid or blame boredom on something or someone else, students need to be given tools for dealing with their boredom. These tools provide them with internal resources that equip them to find worthwhile activities and practices to transform boredom into a more productive state of mind. This book addresses the ways students might gain these skills.
Chapter 2 distinguishes everyday boredom from existential boredom. The former involves losing particular desires whereas the latter involves losing all desires - nothing interests one. The chapter describes the fright and terror that are often felt when existential boredom threatens. It also describes evasive tactics that are used to avoid that terror. Among these tactics are physical activities, mental activities, and moral and religious activities. Without these evasive tactics, one could experience dread, agony, despair, frustration, rebellion, or suicidal feelings. The myth of Sisyphus is used to illustrate rebellion. One can, however, deal with boredom in a different way by regarding it as what Soren Kierkegaard calls a “call from eternity.” The chapter describes five conditions that are needed for one to experience such a “call,” plus the differences between an activity that is used simply to evade boredom and one that alleviates boredom without doing so evasively.
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