The Bored and the Boring

The trouble may be in your set



Sure, some professors are boring. Blimey, some of us remember Harvard’s eminent Professor Boring, Edwin Boring, a leading psychologist of the 20th century.

Some blogs, maybe, are also boring. Not to mention a weekly podcast I host. A good friend, reviewing this humble effort, said that he found some of our shows “boring.”

But need we be boring—or bored? Robert Louis Stevenson, in his marvelous A Child’s Garden of Verses, observed that “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings,” and that rules out being either boring or bored.

So what’s our problem?

I’ll leave the “teacher trashing” to others, with the exception of teachers who are themselves bored.

In fact, I don’t mean to trash anyone. As a mark of my sincerity, I boldly call attention to St. Thomas Aquinas’s dictum “Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver” (Quidquid recipiter ad modum recipientis recipitur).

Sometimes listeners and readers, whether students or not, are bored because of their mode of reception. Plainly put, their mode is deficient. And what causes the deficiency?

Two causes come immediately to mind. The first cause is a far too short attention span. Many of us spend most of our time trying to get other people’s attention, and we do so with sharply diminishing returns.

The second cause is what we might call “the imperialism of ignorance.” Many of us, as Plato noted, are so ignorant that we can’t identify our ignorance. Because we don’t know how much it is that we don’t know, we don’t understand what’s being said (or written or taught or preached), and what we don’t understand leaves us bored.

There’s a delicious, and malicious, irony that comes with the boredom that our ignorance informs. Those who suffer from such boredom are themselves boring, and for the most part more boring than those that they accuse of boring them.

Time for examples? Bored tourists, young or not so young, are often too ignorant to appreciate what they see. Bored students, of any age, are often too ignorant to see the significance of what teachers are teaching them. Bored “concerned citizens,” whether old agitators or young activists, are often too ignorant to recognize that there won’t be a sustainable political order, much less the coming of a beloved community, unless they think hard about the core philosophical issues that Plato laid out in his Republic.

Time for an analogy? There are lots of “cringy” jokes. But there are lots of good jokes that people “don’t get” and yet dismiss as “cringy.” (Imagine, if you will, the plight of a wise teacher who has a stock of good jokes. Seriously.) Now there’s nothing funny about the phenomenon I’ve just cited as being analogous to the trials of the bored and the boring.

Somewhere, they say, St. Thomas himself writes that “If a person is incapable of saying something funny, that person is morally unsound.” A corollary is that if a person is incapable of laughing at something that is funny, that person is…in a fine pickle, indeed.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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