Teenagers find a lot of things boring, not least school. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that the young people I met as part of my research in South African schools found their history classes boring. But I was surprised. And this was because I met them while they were learning about the history of apartheid—a history through which their parents and grandparents lived; a history that still shapes much of the world in which they live.
To be sure, much has changed since the early 1990s, when a negotiated settlement ended white minority rule on the southern tip of Africa. Yet even as a democracy, South Africa is one of the most unequal in the world—and that inequality remains highly racialized. For example, less than 1 percent of South African households headed by whites live below the poverty line. In contrast, almost half of all households headed by black Africans (46.6 percent) live in poverty. On the other end of the distribution, while over 60 percent of whites are considered “skilled workers” (managers or professionals), this is true for less than 20 percent of black Africans.
Understanding present-day South Africa requires understanding how apartheid fundamentally shaped race and inequality. How do young South Africans, born into democracy, learn about their country’s history of racial discrimination and segregation? Does it help them make sense of contemporary social issues?
These questions animated my research in two South African high schools. When I began my research, I expected the teaching of apartheid to engender emotions like guilt, anger, and shame. Instead, I found boredom. The boredom was especially striking when contrasted with students’ interest in the Holocaust, which they studied the same year.
Why did students experience learning the history of two large-scale, traumatic twenty-first century events so differently?
When I began my research, I expected the teaching of apartheid to engender emotions like guilt, anger, and shame. Instead, I found boredom.
I should say that I never planned to compare the teaching of apartheid to that of the Holocaust, nor did I intend to study boredom. These topics emerged meaningfully during my 18 months of field work embedded in grade 9 history classes. Informed by a theory-building (as opposed to theory-testing) approach to qualitative research, I dug deeper into these unexpected findings, trying to understand why students received the two histories so differently.
I found that, far from being a natural state of high school, student boredom was driven by key differences in how the two histories were taught. Whereas the Holocaust was taught as a causal story that animated student interest, apartheid was taught primarily through lists (of laws and events). My data also revealed what boredom does socially, by pointing to the relationship between boredom, avoidance, and silencing. Under a boring rendering of history, the past is not engaged. It is presented as distant and irrelevant, and its ongoing legacies (that can cause uncomfortable feelings and difficult dynamics in multiracial contexts) can be ignored. These findings raise questions about how boredom operates in other instances where difficult emotions might be present, like diversity and inclusion trainings.
The dataset I drew on to unpack student boredom came from two formerly “whites only”—now desegregated—South African high schools. The schools I selected for this study are known as “former Model-C” schools and are among the country’s most racially and socioeconomically diverse. I chose them because I was interested in how histories of racial oppression are discussed in contexts of diversity. I focused on grade 9 as this is the year when young people (aged 14–15), across the country, learn about apartheid in a mandatory history module. I spent approximately 400 hours observing in history classrooms. I collected all written materials used in classes and interviewed the ten grade 9 history teachers as well as 160 students of different racial backgrounds. I spoke with half of these students before they took the apartheid module and the other half after they had completed it.
Far from being a natural state of high school, student boredom was driven by key differences in how the two histories were taught.
I became acutely aware of students’ comparative interest in the Holocaust over apartheid when negotiating access to the second school in my study, Roxbridge (names of schools and participants changed to protect confidentiality). The official curriculum states that the Holocaust should be taught in the first part of the year, followed by apartheid in the second half. However, Roxbridge deviated from the official curriculum by teaching apartheid first. In South Africa, near the end of grade 9 is when students choose their matriculation subjects, which they take until they graduate high school. At Roxbridge, teachers wanted to make sure that the Holocaust was being covered during the crucial “subject choice” period, as students enjoyed learning this section. Apartheid, which was perceived as not very interesting, was taught first to get it out of the way—even though this did not make chronological sense.
This change echoed sentiments I heard the previous year from teachers and students at Glenville—the other school in my study. They also told me that the Holocaust was far more interesting than apartheid. At both schools, the Holocaust section focused on a charismatic leader and psychological processes of brainwashing through propaganda. Students were especially fascinated by Hitler and wanted to know what motivated him and his supporters.
Nomvula, a black African student, told me that she enjoyed the Holocaust section. “You just look at [Hitler] and say, ‘What was he thinking doing all these things?’ And you’re just trying to figure out why he did them,” she said. To be sure, there are many, many problems with this historical narrative. However, in terms of understanding boredom, it highlights how causal questions—What made Hitler this way? What pushed people to support him? What were the consequences?—propel the narrative and generate student interest.
In contrast, teachers taught about apartheid as a series of lists. In an interview with me, one teacher at Roxbridge identified this as a key driver in student boredom. She explained: “They literally get a list of acts that were passed and then a list of how it affected the country, and then a list of how it went about to get changed.” In both schools, students had to learn by heart not only what apartheid’s various laws said but also their precise names and the exact dates of their implementations. The result, she explained, was that they approached the section with an attitude of, “We know about that. We know about the segregation. We know about the Mixed Marriages Act. We know about the Group Areas Act.” Instead of asking “why” questions, as they did with the Holocaust, students felt bored by apartheid and its lists.
Under a boring rendering of history, the past is not engaged. It is presented as distant and irrelevant, and its ongoing legacies can be ignored.
I don’t have any data to suggest that teachers intended to make the apartheid section boring. However, as I show in other work, they certainly tried to avoid expressions of guilt and anger in their schools and classrooms. To do so, they taught about apartheid in ways that distanced it from young people’s everyday experiences. Avoiding causal questions achieved this aim, but it also constructed the history as boring. At the same time, the collective framing of apartheid as “boring” likely silenced students who wanted to engage the past as part of their lived realities.
When I interviewed students after they had taken the apartheid module, I asked them whether there was ever a time in class when they wanted to say something but held back because they were worried about others’ reactions. Zodwa, a black African student, told me there have been times when she wondered, “Why did they do that?” She added, “I don’t know why they did it. Why did they hurt people like that? Why did they destroy so many families?”
She didn’t ask these questions, she said, because some students in her class would like to “just leave it in the past … just move forward and just forget about it.” I probed, asking whether the other students said those things in class. Zodwa answered: “Well they don’t really say it, but I can just see it in their attitude, like they feel bored … I can sense that.”
Boredom, in other words, is not a neutral emotion. It is an emotion related to silencing and avoidance, regulating what can be discussed and defending against more difficult emotions like guilt and anger. North American race scholars have identified a variety of beliefs that deny the effects of the past, enabling racism to continue unchecked in the era of civil liberties. Within the first decade of democracy, similar ideas began circulating in South Africa. My research shows how, as a racialized emotion, boredom supports such historical distancing, allowing the past—and its legacies—to be dismissed.
Getting the past into the curriculum is only the first step. What matters next is how the facts of history are connected into a narrative, and what emotions these connections engender.
South Africa is not the only place where schools confront the nation’s violent, racist, and shameful past. Research in a variety of countries, such as Germany, the United States, Australia, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and Rwanda (to name but a few), has pointed to some of the challenges involved in educating young people about history. My research suggests further attention to boredom’s role in these processes.
Teenagers get bored about a lot, but boredom is not a given. When it comes to engaging with difficult topics, it’s worth asking: Whose interests does boredom serve? What does it help people avoid? And what might it mean to tell more “interesting” stories? At a time when countries across the globe grapple with how to deal with their own racist histories, South Africa offers an instructive case. Getting the past into the curriculum is only the first step. What matters next is how the facts of history are connected into a narrative, and what emotions these connections engender.