The Pale King, inevitably

This has been on the table since spring. No longer “hot,” but even more worth thinking about as summer gives kids moments of doing what they really want to do and school recedes into dreaded future.

Time to weigh in on the new David Foster Wallace novel. Everyone else is. This will be especially tough, because I could spend the day on it, chewing successive interlocuters’ ears off like Bill Clinton used to on all-night Air Force One flights. But I’ll try to stay focused.

The Pale King is David Foster Wallace’s last work, left unfinished upon his death in 2008 and lovingly edited to publishable form. It is “about boredom,” as boredom shows up in a team of mid-80’s IRS workers and their efforts to do the tedious business of tax collection. Many have noted the counterpoint to 1996’s Infinite Jest, which was ostensibly “about entertainment” – though both really come down to finding yourself on the lip of the existential void and trying to figure out what, if anything, you can do next.

One great insight of the book is that dullness is quite useful, tactically. It’s a way that things can be secreted more effectively than actually secretiveness. Couch something in impenetrably technical language and it will never be read, hidden in plain sight. This is one reason I read so many primary sources with my students: budget reports and task force summaries, North Carolina’s actual, funded Race to the Top application instead of others’ summaries of what we said we’d do. The language of power is frequently boring. We should not be afraid of it. If we are, we might miss things we really need to see.

Beyond such skullduggery, though: What is the role of boredom in education, and how can understanding it make us better educators?

Maybe we learn in three stages:

– FIRST, the “eager beginner” stage, where we are intrigued enough about the prospect of knowing how to do something that we commit ourselves to learning it;

– and THIRD, the “expert practitioner” stage, where we can do the thing autonomously and it enriches our life as we continue to get better at it, commune with others who do it, and generally enjoy doing it for the rest of our lives.

– It’s the SECOND stage that is tough: the “compulsories,” as I think of them. This is the learning of a thousand discrete, decontextualized facts, skills, and attitudes that you need to master automatically in order to get to “stage three.”

In juggling, it’s the throw-and-catch-to-yourself, and the timing of when to toss the second ball while the first drops, and then the flip of the club, and then…you get it. In music, it’s the scales, and the chromatics, and the thirds and fourths and arpeggios, major and minor, that you need to get under your fingers automatically before you are able to conjur music with them. Throwing pots has the wheel to master; ballet has five positions on up, etc.

These discrete tasks are – at least at first – essentially, stupifyingly boring. We usually encounter them in decontextualized ways and are told they need to be mastered, period, by any means necessary. While constructivist models are devoted to being sure that new material builds upon and is made relevant in the context of prior knowledge, there seems to be something irreducible about the real nuts-and-bolts. While we can explain what we need to do, it still boils down to individual toil in the woodshed. No one else can do it for you.

So being bored is part of learning: pedagogy is, at least in part, about helping kids get through the boring “stage two” so they can get a glimpse of the satisfactions of “stage three.”

But I do not think it is too much to also suggest that education at core presents a response to the existential dread. Because the boring work – if it is the RIGHT boring work – DOES lead to the capacity to do independent, fulfilling stuff in a field that is intrinsically satisfying and enriching. We are not training IRS workers, after all. We are preparing kids to find what makes them go and persevere through the necessarily dull “compulsories” of those fields, the better to do what fulfills them.

There are problems with this framework, I know. We must trust (hope?) that someone finds IRS work intrinsically fulfilling too (the pipe dream of the social efficiency curriculum). And the jobs no one else wants to do inevitably end up at the feet of those with the fewest other options, which we then rationalize as “meritocracy” at work (which is social efficiency’s unforgivable blind spot).

Still and all, it gives me some strategic ways to think about what I teach and how. I can start by helping my students see where they are in the process. I can demystify the moment when learning doesn’t feel fun any more for what it really is: a necessary part of the journey to expertise.

What do you think?

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