Boredom, and its avoidance as the key not just to happiness and contentment but to scholarship, too, has been a notion haunting me this year.
This is not a personal cry from the heart; far from it. The indispensable Humboldtian trilogy of teaching, writing and researching takes care of that, for me anyway.
The theme has developed around a set of variations.
First, several ex-students of mine (I'm thinking of two in particular, both with good jobs - one in retailing, the other in finance) who have contacted me to talk of the boredom, the sheer lack of intellectual stretch they experience at work day in, day out. One will definitely be returning to the Mile End Road to do an MA in his old department. The other? Well, I promised to keep my eyes and ears open for anybody needing a researcher, while warning her how meagre the financial rewards were likely to be.
The next reprise of the tune came in the spring, when one of the Kennedy Scholars (whom I help to select) who is finishing at Harvard, talked to me about her options. As modest as she is intelligent, she told me that she had a good berth waiting in a Washington-based International organisation, but what she really wanted to do was return to Oxford to do a D Phil. What did I think?
Quite instinctively I replied: "Ask yourself what is most likely to get you out of bed on a wet Monday morning in February, and go for that. You'll not be rich if you plump for academic life, but you will probably be happier because you won't be bored. The best paid jobs can sometimes be gilded coffins."
She seized upon the boredom angle. Had I, she asked, come across Joseph Brodsky's Commencement speech, "In Praise of Boredom", which he delivered to the graduates of Dartmouth (the Ivy League one, not the Royal Naval College) in 1989?
I hadn't. She sent it to me.
It's an absolute gem. How's this for an opening to an audience of America's youngest and finest - not to mention the parents who had used a small mountain of dollars to launch their children on to the job market with a golden passport?
"A substantial part of what lies ahead of you," the poet Brodsky declared, "is going to be claimed by boredom ... no liberal arts college prepares you for that eventuality. Art, too, fails to instruct you as to how to handle boredom ... But even should you march out of this Commencement in full force to typewriters, easels and Steinway grands, you won't shield yourselves from boredom entirely."
And, in pay terms, Brodsky added, "writing, painting, composing music" were greatly inferior to working for a bank.
I don't want to overdo scholarship as the ill-paid antidote to boredom. I have a tendency to get a bit carried away by this, as I have in recent weeks when reading the obituaries of Sir Isaiah Berlin, and George Steiner's new mini-autobiography, An Examined Life (Weidenfeld, pounds 11.99), by the sheer intellectual brio these two extraordinary men experienced since first becoming intoxicated by scholarship at a young age (the third time this year the "boredom" theme has enveloped me). Not everyone emerges from their universities in a Berlin-like or Steiner-like state. Far from it.
But I did ask a wise colleague, after those chats with those fully employed but dreadfully bored ex-students of ours, whether perhaps we overdid the excitement, with trips to Whitehall and Westminster and with the speakers we enticed down the Central Line to our seminar rooms.
"Don't be silly," she said. "We should make it as interesting as possible for them while they are here."
Despite Brodsky, she's absolutely right. And if they itch to return for more, that's the sign of a satisfied customer, as we now call them in these post-Dearing days.
Peter Hennessy is professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, and is currently avoiding boredom by finishing his book `The Prime Minister: The Office and its Holders since 1945', which will be published by HarperCollins next year.Reuse content