by Aaron Browder, Open School staff
May 6, 2018
Some people hear about a school with no required classes, or compulsory work of any kind, where kids can choose what to do with all their time, and think that this must be the easiest school in the world. Life is hard, so shouldn’t school be hard too?
The fact is that Sudbury schools are very difficult. Since we don’t tell students what to do, they have to decide for themselves what they are going to do with their time. Often they can’t decide what to do and feel bored. But this must be even worse than a school that is too easy — a school that is too hard, where students are bored because they can’t decide what to do!
Boredom can be a bad thing. When you’re in a situation where you have to do some certain work which you find uninteresting, you feel bored by it. This is a terrible feeling, especially when you can’t get out of that work.
Our minds need to be stimulated. We love to learn and experience new and interesting things. So when we’re forced to think about uninteresting things, it drives us crazy. This kind of boredom — let’s call it “compulsory boredom” — is common in traditional schools that have mandatory classes and homework.
But there is another kind of boredom. It happens when you are free to do anything you want, but you don’t know what you want to do. Let’s call this “free boredom”.
One student at The Open School — I’ll call her Lila — used to do a great variety of activities, from playing musical instruments to running her own shop at school to chairing the School Meeting. Gradually she lost interest in these pursuits, and began complaining more and more of boredom. “There’s nothing to do,” she would say. Of course there were lots of things to do — the world was wide open for Lila. She could study math or write essays, or she could start a YouTube channel or design a video game, or she could do something that no one has ever done before or ever even thought to do.
Lila was suffering from “free boredom”. When you are in this state, all the things you usually do seem uninteresting to you at the moment. Your friends or family may suggest ideas, but they all sound equally boring. Compulsory assignments might get you busy, but they don’t relieve the boredom — they only transform it from free boredom into compulsory boredom.
Sometimes people will prefer compulsory boredom to free boredom. Even though it traps them, they are able to blame their suffering on someone else. They can say, “My teacher was supposed to inspire me, but they didn’t, so it’s their fault I’m unhappy.” Free boredom is hard because you have to take responsibility for your own success or failure.
This is one of the great problems of growing up. As people in the 21st century, we are tasked with discovering our passions and ultimately finding work that is meaningful to us. Unfortunately, most people spend their childhoods in schools where their time is filled with meaningless busywork, and they are not permitted to begin exploring their own interests until they are adults, often after graduating from college. Even then, many people are unable to explore their interests because they are too busy paying the bills and paying back college loans.
We are all infinitely unique human beings and we all have different interests, talents, proclivities, and ambitions. Figuring out what you want to do is a lifelong task, and it is one that only you can undertake. No one can tell you what you are interested in! No one can guess what you are interested in. No school can reliably inspire you by restricting your choices to a small handful of subject areas such as math, language, science, and art.
We have come to believe as a culture that doing something is always better than doing nothing, even when that something is meaningless. As Laura Grace Weldon puts it:
“Many adults seem determined to keep kids busy. Unintentionally, this teaches children that fallow time is undesirable. Yet daydreaming, contemplation, even the uncomfortable condition we call “boredom” are necessary to incorporate higher level learning and to generate new ideas.”
“Free boredom” is not a bad thing. It feels unpleasant, much like the sensation of intense hunger. But it’s not bad. Just like hunger, free boredom drives us to action. It compels us to try new things, to ask new questions, to think about things we haven’t thought about before. It provokes curiosity and creativity.
A Sudbury school is not an empty building. It is full of interesting things, of different people buzzing about in pursuit of their own interests. There are books, art supplies, musical instruments, and computers. There are people of all ages running their own businesses, or conducting school business on committees, doing everything from fundraising, to deciding how to spend money, to deciding who to hire for the school’s staff, to debating the school rules. Students here can do anything anyone can do in a traditional school, plus a lot more.
Despite all these attractions, many kids occasionally feel bored. Why do they feel bored if there is so much to do? Because they haven’t yet found their personal spark of interest. This is one of the great tasks of growing up in the 21st century, and we would do our children no favors by protecting them from it.
“[I hope] we will learn that it is permissible — and desirable — to make contact with the monsters within us, and we will continue to examine them with care; because in that compressed, repressed and shuttered realm lies the fiery core of our life force. For it is in places of terror, of emptiness, and of boredom that creativity and action flourish.”
~ Menachem Goren