By Divya Kannan
The philosopher, Bertrand Russell, once famously wrote,
“A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”
His words ring true in this time of unprecedented uncertainty. As parents, particularly of the great Indian middle class, scramble to convert their homes into schools, and schools outside go silent, they struggle with the predicament of a bored child in their presence.
So far, most children’s happiness quotient was equated with their level of participation in activities, often chosen by their parents. Today, without peers to socialise and play with, many children are stuck indoors with their digital screens for company for long periods. This desire to constantly keep children active and excited cuts down their ability to sit and creatively work through boredom. Recent surveys in the United States and Europe have shown that well-off parents prefer to distract children as soon as they complain of boredom and reluctantly encourage independent play. Perhaps families in India face a similar situation, at least in some social classes.
As India is in the midst of the fourth phase of a nation-wide lockdown, children being confined indoors gnaws at middle-class conscience .The pressure on families and schools to construct a perennially ‘happy and lively’ child is so immense that a ‘bored’ one is often a disappointment. A failure that certain parents take upon themselves to punish and to be punished for themselves. For those who are fortunate to have a roof above their heads, the tension is palpable. What can we do with anxious children stuck at home with incomplete lessons and no variety in external stimuli?
This is a societal irony, if we remember that until the streets went quiet, teeming millions of poor children already roamed our streets at night for shelter, worked at roadside stalls, knocked at our car windows for fleeting pity, and rummaged through bins for leftover food.
Not the boredom one typically associates with a school-going child. These children at the traffic lights and flyovers did not necessarily upset many of the otherwise emotionally charged, utensil-banging middle-classes. No anguish was expressed for the vagrant child’s lack of academic future. Instead, poor parents were accused of ignorance and neglect. We sneered at the begging child’s gall to bless us for a rupee and curse soon afterwards. Alternatively, we told the poor that they have to improve themselves and aspire big to change their fortunes. The tropes of this language, reminiscent of colonial and postcolonial civilising missions, construe the poor as deviants and ill-suited to raise children. Yet, their existence challenges and destabilises dominant, middle-class norms of childhood innocence and protection. COVID -19, a crisis of mammoth proportions, destabilises it further.
The perils of ‘smartness’
Amidst the neoliberal cacophony of ‘smart living’ and ‘smart solutions’, we pat ourselves for always being on the go with our gadgets. Smartness is almost a state of mind. Yet, incidentally, as we collectively crawl through this unsettling phase, we do not look that smart, after all. Our premium on self-improvement has offered little. Celebrities complain of boredom and seek public adulation for their videos on mundane domestic chores. For some, the crisis is a matter of beating boredom, and for others, it disrupts the potential to forge new affective communities.
These condemnations of boredom plague our ideas of schooling as well. With incessant competitive exams, spread of social media, and the burden of proving one’s worth as a parent, especially for mothers, a bored child is a commentary on our own societal fractures. In many cases, boredom is a symptom of issues of demotivation, stress, monotony, and anxiety. A thirst for freedom to indulge in tasks of one’s own choosing. Regimented schedules prevent children from giving vent to their concerns and they judge themselves as boring individuals. Perhaps this is what COVID-19 has brought into sharper relief. In spite of our genuine concerns with the shutdown of schools, we forget that the existent nature of education in India is not particularly high on socio-emotional learning or unleashing hidden talents. Barring rare instances, if you are lucky, India’s fraught school system gives us issues of infrastructure, lack of qualified teachers, excessive authority, bureaucracy, and rote learning. As we partially shift learning online, our children’s ability to work through their feelings are curtailed even further. They turn to digital devices to pass time.
Unsurprisingly, online classrooms have become exclusionary spaces. “Sign up for free”, declare advertisements, as they conveniently forget that laptops and internet are not. Parents who relied on child-care have to now juggle the demands of their unstable jobs and turn into semi-educators and entertainers. It is a cruel joke but many tearfully remember the professional teacher who has been crying hoarse for years about school reforms.
COVID-19 is yet another reminder that only a consolidated social and financial investment in schools and teachers will sustain us in the end. No matter what the difficulties with the physically available schools, it still provides a modicum of hope, an opportunity, a refuge, particularly to the working classes, to ensure a better future for their children. These spaces matter as children gather to create their own emotional communities with teachers and peers and discover their abilities. Unequal access to online classrooms should urge us to demand ‘smarter’ reform and democratisation.
Democratising school cultures
So far, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has medically spared most children from the worst of its effects, but they will inherit what follows. The refusal to allow them the time and space to explore and process the complex gamut of emotions in this scenario will only be counter-productive. Until now, we sought to protect them from tangible sources of danger. Today, the enemy is out of sight and appears in varied forms in the lives of the adults around them. In matters of unemployment, disease, debt, and premature death. We do not need online solutions that focus on the completion of the official syllabus, which, anyway, sought to reduce us to mechanical beings.
We need a syllabus rooted in empathy, to begin with. Attempts such as the ‘Happiness Curriculum’ developed in the Delhi government schools are a step in that direction. These popular classes, now offered via the phone and internet, focus on cultivating critical thinking and life-skills to cope with stress and conflict. It encourages children to reflect on the meaning of their various relationships. Here, happiness is not necessarily in conflict with feeling bored. In fact, the classes assure children that it is okay for them to have those feelings. They have to be mindful of it. Their lack of interest and motivation during this crisis does not define them completely as useless individuals.
Such a re-imagining of a school pedagogy is a step towards a democratic and mutually cooperative school culture. Along with this, the need of the hour is to impart lessons of civic consciousness, legal awareness, and the collective strength to call out the rulers who impinge on our basic freedoms. Scientists agree that children are resilient beings. Perhaps, this is the resource that one can draw upon and nurture. When we try to ‘protect’ children by ‘keeping them happy’ and ‘busy’, we must pause to consider whether we are instead only protecting ourselves from the guilt of letting them be ‘bored’ and ‘by themselves’, which are not necessarily bad things.
Boredom as privilege
Being bored can also be seen as a privilege of sorts. Migrant children, witness to their parents’ agony, homeless overnight, walking hungry and foreseeing death cannot afford to complain of boredom the same way as others. They have also left behind books and teachers, friends and neighbours, and whatever dreams they envisioned. The cruelty of having so much time at hand but nothing to hold on to has never been worse.
How does it help to alienate children further as they struggle to reconcile to the absence of familiar faces and voices? Meanings of play and work have changed but it should not push us to compel them to remain ‘smart’ at all times. If our children are ‘unhappy’ it is because of the pervasive inequalities and violence within which their childhoods are located. It stems from their exclusion from cultural and political privileges accorded to adults, owing to age, gender, caste, and class. In particular, for children belonging to vulnerable communities or those on the move with families, childhood in itself is a test of their will to survive.
I can imagine that Russell would have advised that we let our privileged children be bored. Let them accumulate the sensitivity and patience to cope with the stressful paradoxes of our times. Their schoolbooks and syllabus can wait. An equal and just society cannot.
Divya Kannan is Assistant Professor, Department of History, Shiv Nadar University. Her research interests include histories of colonialism, childhood, education, and feminist studies.