A RECENT New Yorker cartoon shows two cows standing in a pasture, chewing their cuds. Breaking the pastoral silence, one cow turns her very blank eyes on the other cow and says, "Dorothy, I'm bored." Cows are not the only ones making that complaint these days. From preschoolers to retirees, the thumb-sucking, foot-stomping demand spreading across the land has become: "Entertain me."
At its most harmless, boredom is a temporary state, eased - for the moment, at least - by the nearest diversion, however mindless. But at its most dangerous, boredom is a manifestation of deep, sociopathic indifference, leading to the seemingly motiveless crimes, including murder, that create today's scariest headlines.
A 15-year-old suspect in the rape and murder of a young woman in Boston last Halloween told police he and his friends selected their victim at random because they were bored. "There was nothing to do and so I guess we had the impression of going out in the field and kill somebody," he said. Youths convicted in the case of the Central Park jogger offered a similar casual explanation for their monstrous actions. And in rural Fayette County, Pa., last year, officials blamed bored teenagers for a series of a
rsons that included torching vacant buildings for fun and setting cars on fire.
What accounts for this low threshold of boredom that today trips up the rich as well as the poor, the young as well as the old? Boredom hardly ranks as a new problem. Medieval monks struggled with acedia - boredom at the very moment of prayer. And the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal described the state of man as "inconstancy, boredom, anxiety."
What may be new is the increasingly precocious age at which boredom settles in, in the suburbs as well as the inner cities. Ask any parent who has ever sighed in despair as a young child, surrounded by the latest electronic games, high-tech toys, and richly illustrated books, whimpers, "I have nothing to do."
"Bor-ring! the drawn-out syllables, pronounced with a dying cadence, have become the ultimate teenage dismissal of life.
Nowhere has the unstifled yawn of the young defied the world more alarmingly than in education. Students weaned on "Sesame Street" and tucked into bed by Johnny Carson expect teachers to be stand-up comics and court jesters, entertaining them at every turn of the textbook page. Teachers, parents, and even presidents of the United States have been panicked into packing the classrooms with electronic toys and turning curricula into game shows until the of education seems to double as the in entertainmen t
, as if learning must be pure fun - a "high." In the quest for candy-coated relevance, even Ivy League colleges may be found providing courses, in effect, on Madonna 101.
The attempts to devise education, like children's shampoo, without tears, has not worked so far, if the results of new math and phonetic reading are to be judged. The small pleasures of painless, if erratic, techniques appear to be depriving students of the great pleasure, for instance, of reading well.
Can important and satisfying skills be mastered without - shudder! - work, without discipline, a word whose root is the same as "to teach"?
In any case, it is obvious that catering to the bored as if they were intellectual invalids only produces a lower and lower threshold of boredom. The problem of boredom is made worse by responding to the demands of the bored. The solution depends on recognizing that boredom is not a fate but a condition for which those who are bored must be held partly responsible. The question has to be asked: Is life really boring, or are those who find it that way guilty of a lack of imagination?
Boredom not only can lead to crime. It is a crime of sorts, emptying life of meaning. In calculating the five threats most likely to destroy Western civilization, the Harvard scientist Harlow Shapley listed boredom, along with nuclear warfare, overpopulation, environmental catastrophe, and plague. It may be time to take boredom seriously and to place the blame where it belongs - on the supposed victims. For every yawn, let the blase repeat 10 times the words of Samuel Butler: "A man who lets himself be b
ored is even more contemptible than the bore."