“I’m bored!” The words have barely left the lips of my seven year old son and I’m already lecturing him against such profanity. I’m by no means a legalistic parent, but those words are anathema to me, and I have specifically forbidden them from our home. I loathe this treacherous phrase, believing it to be a destructive deception of the Evil One.
In my position as a professor, similar in many respects to my position as a parent, I equally lose my patience with the student who demonstrates laziness and a propensity for boredom. Yet I’ve seen this attitude all too often at every level of education, from the window gazing high school student to the internet surfing mountain bike shopper in a master’s level Old Testament class, and everything in between. In an electronic age in which knowledge is more than ever at our fingertips, we are perhaps less interested in accessing it than at any time in history. As Chesterton writes so candidly, “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” Our greatest educational deficiency is not a lack of wonders to explore, but a lack of desire to explore them.
I think this lack of wonder stems from a misguided yet pervasive perception of the end goal of education. Too many view education as a checklist to be completed on the way to a degree and a career instead of education as the cultivation of wisdom, eloquence, imagination, and wonder in the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. As I write this brief essay I am reflecting on a recent evening when I and seven others met to discuss the first three essays of Chesterton’s Tremendous Trifles for absolutely no other reason than the shared desire to discuss an author who, better than any other I have ever read, found wonder and excitement in the most mundane things of life.
During the course of our conversation, two discussions highlight well both the problem and the solution to this “I’m bored” mentality. The first is a failure in our view of education, a failure that is reflected in the otherwise unreflective brown paper discussed in Chesterton’s essay “A Piece of Chalk.” Early in this fascinating essay, Chesterton describes a scene in which he asks a woman for some brown paper. Although Chesterton’s intentions were to draw upon the paper, the woman immediately assumes that he must desire to wrap something with the brown paper and thus launches into a defense of the thickness of the paper and its durability for the task. When Chesterton assures her that he neither wishes to wrap a package nor does he wish the paper to last, but merely desires some brown paper on which to draw, she tries to offer him white paper that will better do the job as a canvas. Again, Chesterton is forced to defend his desire for the brown paper on account of his delight in its very “brownness.” One among us remarked upon the way in which the woman’s assumption of his purposes in seeking the brown paper reminded him of the way people respond when he tells them of his double major in History and Biblical and Theological Studies. They immediately ask him the question, “What are you going to do with that?” demonstrating that the immediate goal of education for most people is its necessary completion on the way to what really matters—a job. But my friend thoughtfully remarked that his education was not primarily about what he could do with it, but what it did in him.
Like Chesterton and his brown paper art, what appealed to my friend was not the practicality of the paper (or in his case, education) but rather its “brownness,” the very quality and nature of the thing itself. In short, his education is not merely or even primarily about getting a job but instead about cultivating wonder. Perhaps it may be even better to say that the education is the brightly colored chalk in his pocket, and the brown paper the canvas of his mind upon which the content of his education can color? Either way, it’s not merely for a practical purpose.
If the brown paper in “A Piece of Chalk” demonstrates the problem, the pigmy of “Tremendous Trifles” is the solution. Chesterton tells the story of Paul and Peter, two young boys with very different notions of exploration. Paul wished to be a giant so that he might make great strides across the globe and see all the great marvels of the world. In his great size, however, the Himalayas are nothing more than “little cork rockery in the garden” and Niagara is “no bigger than the tap turned on in the bathroom.” By becoming so large, he misses the beauty of that which he seeks to explore, and he eventually lies down “in sheer boredom.” I would compare Paul’s approach to that of the modern student. The student wishes to stride quickly through the requirements, get to the destination as easily as possible, and finds the information nothing but a boring, commonplace thing he had already experienced.
Peter, however, wished always to be a pigmy. For Peter, everything became an adventure. Even his own garden could become as a world ready for exploration. For Peter the Pigmy, he developed eyes of wonder that could see what we view as mundane for what it really is—magical. As Chesterton writes, “He set out on his adventures across that coloured plain; and he has not come to the end of it yet.” Nor will he ever come to the end of it.
When it comes to education, I think the answer is to become the pigmy, making ourselves small and the world big (and isn’t the world, both the physical and literary world, enormous?!). In a great irony, we might first need to become pygmies in order finally to become human, for I have no doubt that to wonder at the world is precisely at the heart of what makes us human.
My ramblings, then, bring me back to a single, simple conclusion—wonder at the world and never, ever, say “I’m bored!”
Do you understand, son?
G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2007), 7.
Thanks to Christian Lingner for this thought.
Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, 4.
Chalk Photo: Daniel Watson on Unsplash