Interest in the Uninteresting


IF one were looking for a clue which should lead into the innermost secret of modern educational reform, one might find it in the word “interesting.” The fundamental proposition of the present is that one can do well only that in which one is really interested. So far, so good. It would be hard to find any opponents to this thesis ; for no one who has accomplished anything in this world can fail to recognize the vast difference between his results when he has been doing routine duty, and when he has, if only for a moment, been carried forward by an absorbing interest. The turningpoint in the life of many a youth has come when he has first actually felt the passion of work upon him. I recall the case of a lad who, during three quarters of his college life, was the despair of all who knew him, idle, indifferent, silly, apparently without even character enough to be bad. Four years from that time he was graduating from the medical school at the head of his class, and with an unblemished record throughout his course for diligence, enthusiasm, and sound sense. I asked him what it was that had waked him up ; and he said it was simply that, in the summer vacation after that third college year, he had taken hold of a job of work which he was compelled to do to save his degree, and, for the first time in his life, had carried it through to the end. In carrying it through he had found his interest aroused, and from that time on it had never flagged. He could hardly speak of the beautiful operation for appendicitis without emotion.

There can be no doubt about it : one does thoroughly well, in the highest sense of the word, only that in which one is interested. But our friends the educators have added a corollary to this proposition. They have said, or implied, that, this being the case, one should undertake to do only, or at least chiefly, that in which one is already interested. Is this safe ground? If one confines it to the choice of a profession for life, the argument appears sound enough. One ought to choose as a life work that in which one expects to find the deepest and most permanent interest, even if it be only the interest in getting money. Only so can one hope for true success. Yet even here one assumes that he who is beginning life has already a well-defined interest in something; and in how many cases this is not the fact, we all know, if we know anything of youth. As we go down in the scale of experience the argument gets less and less trustworthy. It answers pretty well in the higher stages of college study, and the good results are hardly questioned by any who have watched the experiments now going on in the use of the elective principle in colleges. By means of this principle it has been possible for young men to turn their activities into those lines of study which especially appeal to them, in this way to get better results, and so to gain something, be it ever so little, of that exaltation of spirit which comes from actual achievement. Still, one who is familiar with the student mind cannot overlook the fact that choice of one field of work means the neglect or avoidance of another ; and he who knows the ways of youth knows that the principle of the least resistance is far too tempting to be trusted without caution. The method of choice works well in the higher grades of college work, but its dangers are manifest.

As we come into the lower stages of education, we reach a zone, not precisely definable, in which the dangers become more prominent and the advantages more questionable. To almost any youth under, say, eighteen, nothing in the way of study is either violently uninteresting or notably enticing. Doubtless one thing “ comes easier ” to him than another, and if left to himself he is very, very likely to mistake this ease of acquisition as an indication of permanent interest. Of course, in all this talk genius is barred. Genius, as it will submit to no rules, so also needs no rules. The question is : For the vast multitude of youth, is it safer to say, “ Attempt nothing in which you are not interested, lest your accomplishment therein be poor,” or to say, “ Don’t worry about whether a subject be interesting or not, but believe that, on the whole, the traditions of the past will guide you more safely than you can guide yourself just yet, and do what comes to you as if it were the only thing possible for you to do at the time ” ? Good accomplishment is indeed one of the great stimuli to the intellectual life, but it is only one. The sense of having done faithfully, and a little better than we have done it before, some kind of work that was not “ interesting ” is also a stimulus, and a powerful one. I hardly know of a more precious gift to any man than the power of seeing the interest which lies concealed in the “ uninteresting.” Everything is interesting if you can get into it far enough, and he who can fit the sweeping of his room into its right place in the law of God finds that it is no longer the sweeping of a room, but the adjusting of one tiny yet essential spring into the mechanism of the universe.

The vast burden of every human life is routine, and one’s own routine is seldom “ interesting.” The real problem of every education is how best to prepare a man to carry his lifelong burden joyfully. Surely it is not by deceiving him into the hope that it will be entertaining, nor by teaching him to avoid it as far as he can. Is it not rather by trying, in so far as in us lies, to make him see the interest which the uninteresting may have for him ? We Americans are perhaps in greater danger than others in this matter, because the whole tendency of our life is towards the avoidance or the removal of unpleasant things. It is a curious fact that the Continental languages do not offer precise equivalents for our word “ comfort.” We all understand, however, what that word means: it is the avoidance of discomforts, the making our way as straight and as soft as possible, the padding of rough spots, the cultivation of fastidious refinements, in which the American leads all the world. The danger in our education is that we shall go so far in directing our children’s minds to the interesting that they will cultivate the same dread of that which does not interest them at once which we are all cultivating as to the stuffing of our chairs, the elegance of our traveling arrangements, the fastidiousness of our toilet, and so on.

By the side of the principle that one does best that in which one is interested let us place two others in equally large letters. First, that within the dullest routine there lies hidden some element of interest, if we will only do the thing nearest as if there could not be any other work possible to us. There does not seem to be much poetry in the digging of a garden bed. To the clown there is none, but the man of thought and refinement will find in the sweet odor of the upturned earth, in the skill needed to bring the under layer to the surface, to open all to the action of the sun and air, to finish off the top true and even, ready for the seeding, and in the thought that this is not mere earth, but potential life and beauty in form and color and perfume, — in all these he will find an interest which will lift his work at once upward into the region of true creative activity. The second principle is that, even when work is wholly without interest, there is a discipline in the conquest of a disagreeable task which is of itself an indispensable part of the training of a man. “Waterloo was won on the football field of Eton,” and the lesson of discipline which the youth knows so well how to apply in his sports must be learned also in preparation for the Waterloos of the intellect.