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"Apartheid is boring": The Politics of Disinterest in South African History Classrooms

This paper presents boredom as a social process. Drawing on 18 months of fieldwork in two South African high schools, I examine how the history of apartheid was taught to—and received by—students. I find that students almost universally framed the history of apartheid as “boring.” In contrast, they found the Holocaust section, taught in the very same year, engaging and interesting. To understand the divergent reception of these two histories, I analyse the ways in which the two were recounted to students. Missing in the apartheid section were issues of motivation and causality that animated discussions of the Holocaust. I demonstrate how such issues threatened teachers’ goals of creating a narrative rupture between past and present. In attempting to prevent students’ from making connections between past and present, teachers taught about apartheid in ways that created disinterest and disengagement. At the same time, I show how boredom itself functioned as a placeholder for white students’ resistance to engaging with the ongoing legacies of apartheid. I conclude by discussing the implications for our understanding of the social and political dimensions of emotions in the classroom.