Worldview Education, Technology and the Value of Boredom

This morning while doing some research for a couple clients, I came across two interesting articles that seemed to connect.

One article was a piece by Rod Dreher talking about his time at the recent Society of Classical Learning (SCL) conference. Titled ‘The Problem with ‘Worldview’ Education‘, Dreher shared Joshua Gibbs’ insight that “real art is not something that calls forth an immediate response. You have to contemplate it, turn it over in your mind for a while.” Gibbs went on to suggest that one of the casualties of the worldview-based approach to education is that the rush to analyze texts through a worldview grid can prematurely foreclose–or even completely short-circuit–this necessary process of wondering about and contemplating texts.

Here’s something Dreher shared from Gibbs that stood out to me:

“You don’t wonder about what you merely process,” he said.

“Students aren’t formed by analyzing something,” he said. ‘You need to dwell on it for a long time before you have anything to say about it.”

The problem with worldview education, he said, is that it closes off the possibility of wonder by providing a rigid ideological measuring stick for texts.

…to truly encounter and wrestle with a great book (even a great bad book!), you have to enter into its world.

Real art is not something that calls forth an immediate response. You have to contemplate it, turn it over in your mind for a while.

I raised similar concerns in my Touchstone article ‘More than Schooling: The Perils of Pragmatism in Christian Attitudes Toward the Liberal Art.’ I pointed out that if our goal is to produce students with enlarged capacities to love, imagine and wonder, and who recognize their need to be nourished by what is good, true and beautiful, then our first task is to help them engage with works of art as works of art, and not simply as fodder for worldview analysis. I’m completely in favor of helping students learn the skills of critical thinking and discernment, but there is a type of critical thinking that only emerges from first being able to truly encounter and wrestle with great creative works on their own terms.

The other article I came across during my work this morning was by David Livermore, titled ‘Wait, What? What Smart Phones do to our CQ‘. I have long been a fan of Dr. Livermore, whose research on Cultural Intelligence has played an important role in my own work in cross-cultural psychology. But what caught my interest in this article was Livermore’s insight about the importance of having times of stillness and even boredom.

“Boredom is directly linked to creativity and innovation. Researchers Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman conducted a study where a group of participants were asked to come up with creative ideas for how to use a pair of plastic cups. Prior to the brainstorming session, one group of participants was asked to copy numbers from a phone book while a control group was not given the boring task. The group who slogged through the phone book assignment came up with more creative ways to use the plastic cups than the others.”

This makes sense in light of other research I’ve seen. A lot of research is now showing that regular periods of boredom are good for children’s brains in general, and their imaginations in particular. As I reported for TSM last May,

“Study after study has found that in order for the higher functions of the brain to flourish the brain needs to be given frequent and regular spaces of silence, as well as spaces of deep undistracted attentiveness to a single activity. What both silence and attentiveness share in common is that they depend on the brain being able to weed out incoming stimuli. In other words, for the brain to work properly, it needs times when it is not multi-tasking. Times of quiet, as well as times of undistracted focused activity (whether listening to music, reading, prayer, exercise or meditation), act as incubation periods in which the brain consolidates what it has learned like a computer defragmenting itself to weed out the junk.

Times of stillness, quiet and even boredom are all crucially important for our mind, imagination, memory and reason to flourish. I don’t need any research to tell me this because I experience it myself. Since deliberately taking times to go on long walks in nature, to practice mindfulness, to pursue practices of contemplative prayer, and to resist the temptation to always be doing something “useful” even if that means embracing a little boredom–since doing these things, I find my brain and imagination operating at better capacity. I also find myself more in tune with the needs of those around me.

Returning to David Livermore’s article, he shared concern that our smart phones are foreclosing on this type of necessary stillness and boredom.

“Our smart phones are an insurance policy against ever being bored. And granted, not everyone across the world has a smart phone. I still catch glimpses of elderly people in certain communities who are simply sitting outside doing ‘nothing.’ But the reality is, most of us reach for our phones whenever there’s a minute to spare….

What our brains want is new input—fresh, stimulating, and social. But our smart phones spare us the hard work to get that new input and thereby lessen our creative insights.”

I found myself wondering if there might be a connection between Livermore’s observations about the smartphone and the insights from Joshua Gibbs’ that Rod Dreher shared.

Surely the ability to enter into the world of a text or other artwork–a world that may be very different to our own and may involve us having to shed the comfortable categories to which we have grown accustomed–demands that we spend time to just be in the presence of that world instead of rushing to quickly evaluate, assess or judge. But this requires a type of inner stillness, a holding back of our pragmatic impulse to simply extract what we need and move on. It even requires that we allow ourselves to sometimes be bored. Some of the novels that have had the deepest impact on my spiritual growth were very slow to get going and required patient perseverance in the face of temporary boredom.

Increasingly I’ve been finding that when I engage with high school students to help them wrestle with complex concepts or texts, I get responses like, “Just cut to the chase and tell me what I need to know” or “can you summarize this in 10 seconds?” or “what is the essence of what you’re trying to say?” But great literary works and great ideas often have an irreducible complexity about them, a complexity that requires a type of cognitive quietness. The skill of being able to be still in the presence of art that is beautiful, or to be patient in the presence of art that may be confusing, requires students to sometimes be bored, or at least to delay cognitive gratification.

I am wondering whether the type of education I am advocating might increasingly feel unnatural in a world where the smartphone has wired our brains to find boredom strange and even frightening?

As the smartphone relieves us of having to ever go for long without fresh cognitive stimulation, and as it habitualizes us to continually make judgments (in the true neurological sense), will we be more inclined to approach texts with the mentality of quickly grabbing what we need and moving on? And if so, does the type of worldview approach to education that Dreher and Gibbs oppose fit naturally within the cognitive habits forged by the smartphone?

I don’t know, but I think these are the types of questions that Christian educators need to be asking.

Further Reading