Attention!

Mr. Eyal Ophir, a recent graduate of Stanford, reports that “shortly after he came to Stanford, a professor thanked him for being the one student in class paying full attention and not using a computer or phone.” This item stimulated a memory of my own undergraduate days. The scene: a chemistry lecture. Professor Reinmuth, perhaps unfairly stigmatized as a dull lecturer, noticed that two students were whispering to each other. He paused for a moment and, when they did not take the hint, announced, “Gentlemen, you are excused.” The offenders slinked from the room. That was the one time during my undergraduate career when I saw any students not paying attention, or not appearing to pay attention, to what the professor was saying. It never occurred to me that students could have, should have, might have multiple tasks during a class.

Professor Reinmuth eventually took private lessons in public speaking and later in his career was complimented for the quality of his lectures; but, dull or brilliant, they were the center of the class, and students were expected to attend to them. In his class and in all my classes I took notes, using the left side for quick one-word and symbolic margin­alia, which I would later amplify. I had no idea that I had privately invented “Cornell notes,” as they are now called in the Ed Biz.

Nor had I any idea that in my review of marginalia I would be doing something increasingly rare not just in class but outside: building purposefully and soundly on information and ideas previously encountered. The same New York Times article reporting on Mr. Ophir also reports on his psychology research, which shows that people who habitually divide their attention (what is called “multi­tasking”) tend to be easily distracted. More troubling, multitaskers, when faced with the choice of getting new information or of analyzing what they already have, prefer the new. That response, which made sense in an environment full of leopards and brush fires, makes less sense in one where people must pause for consideration, synthesis, and judgment. It is strange and disquieting to think that new technologies might promote atavistic responses and leave untested or actually diminish mental powers needed in environments other than caves and savannahs.

(William James wondered whether there can be such a thing as too much peace and perfection, leading us to recoil from Chautauqua meetings, wishing for dirt and dust-ups. Maybe the people who multitask feel a lurking nostalgia for leopards and brush-fires, but this is a blog about teaching and learning, not about paleoanthropology in everyday life.)

The short of it is that Mommy’s little throwbacks may be noticing many shiny new things, but they should be learning to pay attention. That is because they should be learning how to hold to something new long enough to become familiar with it, to analyze it, and to find or make a place for it amidst what they already know (or to boot it out). Otherwise they will have an attic instead of a mind. Attics are fine, but they are upper rooms, not living rooms.

One of the best ways to acquire the intellectual and mental powers I am talking about is to take a long course of instruction in a traditional subject. The traditional subjects (say, the Seven Liberal Arts or any subject under the tutelage of a Muse), having been around for hundreds or thousands of years, have developed ways of analyzing and synthesizing (or rejecting) the raw data submitted to their consideration. By assimilating these ways, students start to furnish their minds, thus making a starting-point for the development of their own skill and understanding. A subject teaches not just a subject matter but how to handle it, though we can’t handle the matter unless we learn to pay attention long enough to have ideas about it. A young mind, guided by the accomplishments of the past, learns inclusion, arrangement, analysis, and synthesis; by the transfer effect, these powers can turn to other, newer subjects once they are developed and can assimilate the new material and make something worthwhile out of it.

They will not develop by being subjected to “courses” in “critical thinking” or “information literacy.” Subjects have their particular ways of testing their own truth claims, and these ways have themselves been tested in years of struggle, rejection, and proof. By contrast, what is the likelihood of students new to history producing something of value when asked to tell in critical-thinking courses “how they feel” about the causes of current tension in the Middle East?

Information literacy, if it has a meaning, means the ability to do well what Mr. Ophir reports as harming our concentration and as lessening the suppleness with which we change mental direction purposively. It is electronic gobbet-gathering. For the 97% of students who are likely to be unsuccessful multitaskers, information literacy will be a dead end marked by a heap of facts and wasted time. By contrast, let the following story illustrate literacy-without-qualification.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was lecturing an audience about Samuel Johnson. While telling them about Dr. Johnson’s practice of letting his home serve as a halfway house for down-and-out or destitute people, he mentioned a “fallen woman” called Poll, whom Dr. Johnson had brought home one night half dead over his shoulder (she gradually regained her health at his house). The audience started laughing. Coleridge coolly said, “I remind you of the parable of the Good Samaritan.” The audience stopped laughing. Coleridge’s literacy allowed him not just to recognize the story but to apply it in a live situation. The audience’s literacy allowed them to respond: twelve words and a reaction. They might have gained knowledge about the Good Samar­­­itan in a course of study, but they gained it in a way that allowed them, perhaps by further study and thought, to attend to it and foster its potential for live influence rather than to drop it for the next shiny new thing that came along. If learning includes knowledge, skill, and understanding, what could literacy mean except the ability to do what Coleridge and his audience did? And how could they have done so without the ability to pay attention?

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