March 3, 2003

Boredom 101

Robert Bartlett is associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in political science.

There is a malaise spreading among America’s college and university students, one that extends into the uppermost reaches of their hearts and minds and robs them of delights at the moment they seem poised to enjoy them. This malaise leaves students with little direction or lasting desire and restricts their capacity to conceive of a life at once noble and rewarding; it simultaneously encourages their pursuit of artificial and extreme joys that somehow always yield to lassitude or disappointment. As for the direction they should find on campus, it proves to be as elusive and evanescent as so much else in their lives: universities have by and large forgotten the Socratic exhortation to “Know Thyself” that must guide an education worthy of the name. And hobbled by the effects of this malaise, students are ill-equipped to know very much at all, least of all themselves.

I began to detect this malaise in what might seem to be small things—in the narrowness of students’ frame of reference or field of vision; in the pettiness of their daily concerns; in the tepid character of their admiration and contempt, their likes and dislikes; in the mediocrity of their ambitions. These extraordinary students, who can dream of absolutely anything and attain almost everything, are truly passionate about almost nothing. They expect to fall into an acceptable profession eventually—medicine, law, accountancy, “whatever”—and to stumble across an acceptable pastime—golf, watching television, stamp collecting, “whatever”—to while away the few hours not devoted to business. Much is often made of the hormones that course through teenaged veins, but I am more often struck by the timidity of their concerns and their placidity in regard to almost all things. The world could be their oyster, but they tend to stare back at it, pearls and all—and yawn. What is at work here?

My own experiences with students, first at a large public university, then at a small liberal arts college in the South, now at a prominent private university, have led me to a tentative conclusion: the malaise in question is a fundamentally new and especially virulent strain of boredom. Before students can begin to find their way in college, they must first become aware of this new malady of the soul, see it for what it is, and become open to curing or preventing it. What follows is nothing more than a preliminary diagnosis.

On “Boredom”

The word “boredom” turns out to be an interesting thing. Its earliest recorded use is recent—the latter half of the 18th century—and the relevant authorities disagree as to its origin. Perhaps it is an extension of the verb “to bore,” meaning to drill into something, presumably thus leaving it empty or hollowed out. Then again it may come from the French bourrer, meaning approximately the opposite, “to stuff, to fill, to cram,” which in turn suggests the discomfort of satiety. Turning back to two principal sources of English, to ancient Greek and Latin, one discovers how difficult it is to translate “boredom” accurately into either. If the Greek alus can be properly rendered as “boredom” at all (as distinguished from its more usual meanings of “agitation” “distress” or “fretfulness”), it is exceedingly rare. As for the Latin acedia and melancholia, they most closely approach “idleness” and “sadness” respectively. This philological puzzle suggests the intriguing possibility that the Greeks and Romans lacked the vocabulary to express this experience because they lacked the experience itself. And so argues Chateaubriand in The Genius of Christianity (1802), for he contends that the grand politics of antiquity left as it were no room for the ennui du coeur known in his time, a “state of soul that…has not yet been well observed.” Could it be that the condition denoted by “boredom” is a relatively new malady that has been in the world only a short time and for which we have had to invent a new term?

A glance at the French equivalent of boredom, ennui—a word that has of course also entered untranslated into English—suggests that this is so. According to the Robert, a standard authority on the French language, the earliest of the word’s four meanings was the torment or suffering caused especially by the death of loved ones. But this sense had vanished by the 18th century (except in poetry) and was replaced by ennui understood as those “burdens” or “troubles” caused especially by the weakening of one's senses—the ennuis of old age, for example. There then arose ennui in the more common sense, that of dissatisfaction arising from simple idleness or inactivity. But in the course of the 19th century, the fourth and final meaning arose: ennui understood as the “vague melancholy” or “moral lassitude” that “causes one to take no interest in or pleasure from anything.” Gustave Flaubert, perhaps the greatest poet of modern ennui, describes it in a letter of 7 June 1844:

Do you know of boredom [ennui]? Not that common, banal boredom that stems from idleness or illness, but that modern boredom that gnaws away at man's guts and makes of an intelligent being a walking shadow, a thinking ghost. Ah! I feel for you, if that leprosy is known to you. You sometimes think yourself cured of it; but one fine day you wake up suffering from it more than ever. Do you know those colored bits of glass that adorn the kiosks of retired hosiers? You see the landscape in red, in blue, in yellow. Boredom is the same. The most beautiful things, seen through it, take on its tint and reflect its sadness.

The boredom at issue here, then, is not (or not only) the garden-variety boredom that takes hold when we are adrift without the rudder of desire or the anchor of demands, when we have finished with both our serious work and our rejuvenating play and find ourselves staring blankly in the direction of the television. The boredom I detect is more profound than that, and more troubling too; it is a soul-sapping emptiness or absence of longing—a “desire for desires” (Tolstoy Anna Karenin Part 5 ch.8)—that is sometimes kept at bay but never fully banished.

Boredom and Students

The first important cause of boredom among my students is the decline of politics as a vital presence in their lives. From Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone), many observers have been alarmed by the ever more isolated lives of Americans, and students too share in the vague sense of separation or atomism endemic in society at large. They arrive on campus with meaningful connections only to their immediate families, and they will return to them as visitors. Teams, clubs, and fraternities and sororities certainly draw students out; but these occupy more their time than their hearts, and the connections thus formed typically dissolve on graduation day. If the ancient Greeks and Romans—those “communitarians” par excellence—were guided and ennobled by asking only what they could do for their country, American students today tend not to ask and aren’t often told what they could do for theirs. It is no accident that films like Braveheart, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down electrify many students, for in and through them they glimpse a strange, evidently grander and nobler world in which they might be called on to sacrifice their individual goods on the altar of the common good.

Such heady self-forgetting is of course momentary, an aspect of entertainment, and Tocqueville’s rather nasty remark about democratic citizens can be applied with greater justification to students: they are habitually occupied in contemplating a very petty object, namely themselves (Democracy in America 2.1.18). No wonder, then, that political life occurs somewhere beyond the scope of their concerns. I cannot count the number of times I have met students who, upon learning that I am a professor of political science, smile wanly but aver that they are “not political”; it is not with “cynicism” that many college students greet political questions, but bored indifference. Though some will express admiration for what they believe to have been the “commitment” of students in the 1960’s, very few feel it themselves; and such spasms of interest in this or that political cause as do occur tend to result in measures that are half-hearted, not to say half-baked: I once saw a rather blasé fellow seated under a hand-lettered banner for Amnesty International that read, “Help Free Prisoners of Consciousness.”

My students’ indifference to politics is not without cause, of course. American politics often is dull. From the highest perspective, if the statesmen of the American founding earned “deathless names” for themselves, we as their distant epigones must understand, as already the young Abraham Lincoln did, that “[t]his field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated”: in the absence of so grave a national crisis as the one Lincoln himself was to face—a crisis no responsible citizen ought ever to wish for—the young people today who belong “to the family of the lion or the tribe of the eagle” will not sate their “ruling passion” merely by maintaining the edifice built by others. But whereas Lincoln feared the rise of a new “Alexander, a Caesar, a Napoleon” who would overturn the established democratic order, we have rather to fear that, with the greatest fields of glory closed to them, the most gifted students will become ever more indifferent to that order and so refuse to enter even such lists as are available to them. Thankfully, a lesser but infinitely more beneficial ambition still burns in the bellies of a few students, who “would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair...” (“Lyceum Address”).

It is of course true that the framers of the Constitution intended American politics to be as stable, as “unexciting,” as politics can be. “Gridlock” caused by the separation of powers, the rule of law, and orderly transitions of power—witness Florida—all contribute to a remarkably imperturbable government. The highest task of that government, moreover, is to protect the freedom each citizen enjoys to pursue a happiness usually conceived of in strictly private, i.e., non-political, terms. As a result, our politics isn’t all that political and lacks the rough-and-tumble of political life unadulterated and unrestrained. Health care, Social Security, and the economy are our most explosive political questions, but each concerns ultimately our private, even our bodily, well-being. The policy wonk, not the visionary leader, is the man of the hour. To be sure, this apolitical politics is the product of sober moderation and painstaking deliberation, and students should be taught to see it as such. But moderation not typically being a virtue much esteemed by the young, the fact remains that American politics—prudent and measured and decent—leaves most students cold.

More controversial as a cause of students’ ennui, perhaps, is the absence of religion in their lives, a causal connection made famous by Pascal: without knowledge of or concern for God, human beings vacillate between fits of diversion, which keep them from thinking of their fundamental condition, and enervating boredom, which reminds them of it. To be sure, the United States is still a more religious nation than any in Europe, but the much-cited polls on the subject can’t be the last word. For an affirmative response to the question “Do you believe in God?” gives absolutely no indication of the place such belief actually occupies in the respondent’s life, nor of what (if anything) the God in question demands. But in any case I am speaking of college campuses, and it is an open secret that professors, at least, are much less religious than the populace at large. My students, for their part, have rarely been taught by their parents to think of religion as the central fact of their lives: if in the 19th century the youth were habitually told to “become priests,” as Alfred de Musset reports in his classic Confession of a Child of the Century (1836), such parental advice is unthinkable now. (The most important exception to this is the concern for religion shown by some first-generation immigrants, but how the faith of their children changes under the influence of American mores is a tale often told.) Whatever their background, students will be greeted on campus by an indifference to religion that occasionally gives way to hostility or ridicule. There is of course well-intentioned lip service to “spirituality” on campus—that convenient catch-all for any fellow feeling—but it doesn’t count for much when students need it most: precisely because it encompasses all religious convictions, “spirituality” drains away all that is particular to and profoundest in each. And so my students are more inclined to look to modern psychology and pharmacology than to ancient faith for help in navigating a crisis. Sensing this, and not wanting to be behind the times, religious figures on campus have become adept at giving advice that studiously avoids mention of God (still less “sin,” “eternal damnation,” and so on)—like a recent best-selling book based on the Dalai Lama’s secrets to happiness, in which the central tenets of Buddhism were made strictly optional for American consumption.

But if few of my students have religious conviction to guide them, they do cling with something like religious fervor to its entirely secular substitute, the belief in progress. Not God but History is in charge, and Bill Clinton’s happy campaign song strikes a chord with them: “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” ’cause “it’ll be better than before.” Things will just “work out for the best,” as my students put it. This popularized version of Hegelian philosophy does of course have some support in their lives. They are the principal beneficiaries of the world’s most successful experiment in capitalism and of the truly awesome march of modern science. Both have combined to create a technology whose mastery of the natural world confirms for them, for them especially, the superiority of their age. In politics too it would seem that they are incomparably blessed, for political history appears to them to be the history of a series of more or less foolish errors leading up to the discovery of (our) liberal democracy. The temptation to see ourselves as standing at the “end of history” is great indeed.

Whatever other questions one might raise about this belief, it takes a toll on students. For to be convinced of the progressive character of human life is to be convinced of the superiority of the present to the past: when the achievements of another era are by definition deficient in comparison with what we can do here and now, they shrink accordingly in importance. Edison’s light bulb is most impressive to someone who has never heard of the laser. Thus the belief in progress saps the only serious incentive to study the past—to learn from it how to live here and now—and history becomes boring, boring, boring. Unburdened by knowledge of the past, my students are crippled by an amazingly constricted frame of reference. They know nothing of Pericles and little of Churchill and so can’t seriously compare the gravest public utterances of our democratic statesmen with those of ancient Athens’ or modern Britain’s. Pyrrhic victories, Quixotic undertakings, and Socratic irony are lost on them. They wouldn’t recognize a Shylock or a Jezebel if they stumbled over one, and if some day they meet their Waterloo, it will all be over before they know what hits them.

The belief in progress also has its suppressive effects on students’ striving. For there is less focus among undergraduates on all the neat things left to do, at what they take to be this late date in history, than on all the neat things that have already been done—by somebody else. Gone are the virgin jungles and untrodden polar caps that enticed the adventurous spirits of yesterday. Indeed the highest mountain peaks of story and song can now be routinely visited by means of prepackaged adventure tours, which must provide only vicarious thrills: Mount Everest as extravagant amusement park. As for the exploration of outer space, the chief result of the space program has been to make space travel routine and therefore—you guessed it—boring. The space shuttle in particular has become a sophisticated flying truck, and how many college students dream of becoming truck drivers?

Finally, the doctrine of progress, thought through, begins to rob even the present of its grandeur. Today may be better than yesterday, but some tomorrow will always outstrip any today. Most of the gadgets and inventions we so pride ourselves on, for example, will be forgotten eventually, the MP-3’s and space shuttles of today becoming the 78's and horse-drawn buggies of yesteryear. It would seem that our greatness too will be, like all human things, of remarkably fleeting duration. But in the end this means that ours is a cut-rate, low-rent greatness, and who can be profoundly moved by that? The prevalence of the baseless belief in progress among students causes both the past to shrink in importance—it is but a prelude to us—and the present to shrink before the daunting prospect of an awesome and unimagined future—to which we ourselves are but prelude. Some awareness of this is beginning to seep into the consciousness of students, with all the deadening consequences one might expect.

More complicated and more troubling is the influence of nihilism—of the philosophy of “nothingism” first publicized in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862) and made notorious in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nihilism holds, in brief, that all so-called objective truths, and in particular all judgments of right and wrong, have in the modern era finally been revealed to be what they have always been, namely man-made creations of the (merely) human will. They are not grounded in Nature or God or Truth and can find no support in anything outside of or higher than our own will. Achilles, say, believed that Zeus really existed, that what the gods declared to be just was just unqualifiedly, that the causes he lived and died for were truly noble and hence truly worth living and dying for. We moderns, by contrast, believe we have learned that all those goals were merely historically conditioned or relative to the time in which he lived and hence “objectively” false. Unbeknownst to Achilles, the foundation of his life was a myth, a lie; where he believed there to be something, we know there to be “nothing.” More important, we have applied this insight to our own lives: what we wish to believe is true with a capital “T” will, like all such beliefs, fall away in time and so be revealed to be an evanescent act of the will and not an insight into the way the world “really” is. But this means that we cannot quite believe in our beliefs any more. Adrift without rudder or compass, we have no pole star above and only a bottomless abyss below. All this is implied by Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead,” for “God” is just shorthand for all the convictions a people holds about the highest things.

The change in our thinking wrought by nihilism is revealed most obviously in the language we choose when speaking about what is most important to us. If Thomas Jefferson were to write the Declaration of Independence today, for example, he couldn’t speak of “self-evident truths,” “Nature” or “God,” if he wished to be taken seriously on campus: “We own these values as expressive of our preferences and commitments, although we celebrate the right of King George to express his own value-commitments and pursue his own lifestyle....” This might make a self-help guru misty eyed, but it would have been literally unintelligible to the American Founders, for whom “value” meant the worth of something (the value of gold, for example) and was not a substitute for “truth” or “justice.” Allan Bloom made this point powerfully in The Closing of the American Mind, but nobody seemed to notice, least of all those who most embraced that book: American conservatives too, every bit as much as liberals, speak habitually of “values” (“family values”). Yet the language of values comes straight from Nietzsche, and all values are by definition relative—that is, they are without support in anything other than our commitment to them.

The indirect influence of Nietzsche is easy to spot on college campuses. It informs entire departments and dictates new methodologies—postmodernism, for example, being the uneasy marriage of Nietzschean nihilism and a far-Left agenda. But Nietzsche’s reach extends to the most unexpected places. I taught for several years in a “Great Books” program at a religiously-affiliated and generally quite traditional liberal arts college in the South. From the inception of that program, just after World War II, until the mid-1980’s, it was called simply “Man”—in the old-fashioned sense of “mankind.” But since this seemed to exclude women, the decision was made to change the title to the clunky-but-correct “The Search for Values in the Light of Western History and Religion.” The search for values: not, or not necessarily, a search for the truth or for the best way of life, but for the strange animals called “values.” But to begin by searching for values, rather than the truth, prejudges the case against the very existence of the latter. At most one could say that the truth is that there is only an endless series of values, each “relative” to the culture or epoch in which it is found. My students too speak this language, oblivious of its source. “I don’t want to judge anybody’s values” and “Well, those are my values!” are the refrains I hear whenever a student wishes to dodge thinking about a fundamental question. But to speak in this way is already to live within the embrace or stranglehold of a kind of nihilism.

The popularization of the thought of Nietzsche in this country is but the last of the developments resulting in a generation of young people who can strive for greatness only with difficulty because they can conceive of greatness only with difficulty. The very idea of greatness presupposes a hierarchy of goals—the high, the middling, and the low; it presupposes a rank order of human ends and human striving. Yet students are solemnly taught to believe, in lieu of any investigation of the matter, that all ways of life (“lifestyles”) are of equal worth, just as they are taught to believe, also without investigation, that there can be no answer to the question of the best way of life and hence no fulfillment of the specifically human nature. These are our dogmas, not our insights.

Boredom and the American Dream
The only official or overt guidance young people tend to receive in answering the question of how to live—another way to put the question that a university education should equip them to answer—amounts, then, to this: be tolerant. This is decisive in determining the moral mood of students, but it is not at all helpful in specifying that to which they should dedicate their lives. Here students are supplied more with platitudes than serious direction: be all you can be, follow your dreams, grab the big brass ring. But when it remains up to my students to fashion the very dreams or desires they are then exhorted to follow, they understandably do so by imitating the most impressive examples they can spot—impressive according to the lights of the teenaged soul. What students most need is thoughtful guidance first in raising and then in answering the question “how should I live?” For as it is, when students reflect on the kind of lives they might lead they think solely of their careers, i.e., how they will make money. And though this is indeed a necessary consideration, it is precisely and merely that: in devoting a large portion of our lives to money-making, we submit to the yoke of necessity or the necessities, among them our bodily needs. But are we not also free? Do we not have something in us that transcends—that rebels against—the bodily? And how we choose to use the precious hours not devoted to money-making says infinitely more about us as free citizens and human beings than does our occupation strictly speaking.

If it is not surprising that students first conceive of their lives in terms of earning a living, it is disappointing that, for all our talk of diversity and individuality, of freedom and opportunity, the career options that college students conceive of are uniformity itself: med school for the scientific types, law school for just about everybody else. Beneath the blank canvas upon which each of us may draw whatever life he or she chooses, in other words, there lies a clear pattern that students diligently and dutifully trace. To be sure, these careers are perfectly respectable in themselves. Yet it seems to me impossible that all of the very many who enter medicine and law are truly best suited to those professions or will find their fulfillment therein. Not passion or natural bent but a lack of imagination fills the professional schools. And because earning a good living is often the only clear principle guiding undergraduates in their studies, they are understandably frustrated or baffled by what they find on offer in college: never intended to deliver technical or vocational training, the university’s attempts to do so (e.g., “service learning”) usually embarrass all concerned. As for such traditional fare as Jane Austen or theoretical physics or ancient Greek—what have they to do with landing a good job? Not much, as my students know. What they do not know is that these studies may have everything to do with their deepest if not yet fully conscious desire—to live not only comfortably but well, to lead lives of noble aspiration and admirable accomplishment. Their education should connect this desire to the serious study of all things human, not least in order to expand students’ conception of the possibilities of human greatness.

As students’ conception of such greatness is narrow and impoverished, so too is the manner in which they judge of themselves and others. Indeed the standard by which they do so in practice is often material wealth. I have never heard a student say anything so crude as that money = goodness, but very many of them, like newfangled Calvinists, think it a clear sign. A student once told me that she was shocked to learn of the then-impending death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis because “wealthy people shouldn’t die like that.” At first I took her to mean that, with unfettered access to the world’s best doctors, Onassis ought to have been spared her swift end. But my student had something else in mind: Jackie O. was wealthy because she was good, and good because she was wealthy, and good people shouldn’t suffer so. Another new twist on divine providence....

Among the many objections to wealth as the effective standard by which to judge human worth is this: if at the age of twenty you are already driving a nifty sports car, if the beachfront condo and the boat and the contents of the best malls are already at your disposal, there is no urgent incentive to strive for anything yourself according to the standard you yourself take most seriously. Being the children or grandchildren of those who have realized the American Dream, many of my students find themselves absolutely stumped as to what might be worth dreaming of here and now. Some are willing to have a go at the American Dream, Part II, by trying to beat their parents at their own game—to live in a still-larger house, to drive a yet-faster car, and so on. But to their credit, many sense with greater or lesser acuity the emptiness of such striving. Equipped from the beginning with a very defective standard of excellence, and having from early on many palpable indications of their already having met it, my students do not typically burn with a passion to be or to do anything. They are, in a word, bored.

Filling the Void
Nature will out, however, and the burgeoning nature of youth not least. The vast energies of soul that would in better times be directed toward worthier or more ennobling ends must still be vented somehow. To fill the time on their hands and the void in their lives, students too often turn to activities that are questionable at best and terrifying at worst.

The young have always been attracted to risk-taking and outrageousness at some point. “Boys will be boys,” as the saying used to go. Blithely free of the fear of death, their own mortality being an entirely unsubstantiated rumor, the young are eager for any and every means to discover their capacities by testing them. Better still if those tests elicit gasps of horror from their elders, from whose shadow they are striving to emerge. But now, thanks to technology, my students have before them an array of options that their predecessors could not have dreamed of: bungy jumping, sky diving, roller blading and skateboarding, snowboarding and para-sailing, all at breakneck speeds. Entire industries have sprouted up to cater to and foster these activities, laboring to bestow on them the crucial patina of coolness. They have also helped to concoct a notion of “alienation” said to typify “Generation X” (a label I have never heard a student use), the best solution to which is the purchase of the correct clothing or soda or athletic gear. Only in America: “alienation” was once the Marxist category meant to condemn the relation of the worker to the products of his own labor under the tyranny of capitalism, but it has now been co-opted by precisely capitalism to entice adolescent angst—and parental pocketbooks. As silly as all this is, the extremeness of “extreme sports” may point to a problem, for ever more outlandish activities are needed now just to occupy or titillate the youthful body and soul. If Huck Finn was content to drift lazily down the Mississippi, his twenty-first century counterpart needs to jet ski across it.

But by far the most troubling response to the fundamental boredom of the soul among students is the use of drugs—the skyrocketing use of prescription drugs to be sure (Ritalin, Prozac), but also the persistent presence of illicit drugs, among them cocaine, Ecstasy, and the ubiquitous marijuana. It seems obvious that the first and most massive attraction to such drugs is the giddy numbness, the literally anesthetic quality, they bring to the user. But this means that the user’s euphoria can never be separated from—it is only the clearest indicator of—the demons that lurk within, demons whom such numbness helps tame for a time. Many of the illegal drugs now used on campuses were originally developed to aid the doctor’s attempts to lessen pain caused by illnesses of the body; they are now used chiefly to lessen pain caused by illnesses of the soul. And the boredom I have been delineating is one such illness.

How, then, might drug use respond to ennui? Why are students tempted to anesthetize themselves? There is more at work here than the desire to occupy the mind with something, to find a pharmaceutical counterpart to watching mindless television programs or prowling the malls. I am inclined to believe this because of the very destructiveness of drug use, which, far from being unknown to students, is part of what tempts them. Being fundamentally adrift, being neither deeply moved nor profoundly elated by anything very lasting, some students will blame themselves for their plight and even despise themselves for it. And drugs are a salve for these self-inflicted wounds in two ways: they of course help to deaden the pain such self-contempt causes; but also, because they are so dangerous, drugs are a self-inflicted and apparently condign punishment that brings with it the purgative satisfaction of justice done. Sensing or believing their lives to be of little worth and without direction, some young people seek out the most dangerous drugs because they are convinced they deserve no better. There may be a good measure of empty bravado in such a stance, but that it is adopted at all should be chilling to anyone who cares about the fate of young people today.

The majority of students, of course, do not develop serious drug problems, however widespread experimentation may be. But stripped of the satisfactions that politics supplies, being without confidence in either God or reason, and clinging to the enervating doctrine of progress, my students are filled with the same uncertainties and self-doubts that do lead some to addiction. What these young people long for unawares is an education deserving of the name.

This essay first appeared in the winter 2003 issue of The Public Interest and is reprinted with permission.







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