University of Kent sociologist Frank Furedi writes about the “Focus Fracas” in the Chronicle of Higher Education (behind a firewall), riffing off Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation and the writings of other “kids today have no focus” critics. Furedi makes two big points. First, he notes that people have long worried about new technologies and media creating new forms of distraction.
We talk a lot about distraction, but the way we tend to talk about it suffers from historical amnesia. Since the invention of writing, people have warned about its supposedly harmful effects…. Every phase of technological innovation in printing and publishing has been paralleled by an outburst of anxiety about the public’s capacity for attention.
Second, he argues that “Instead of blaming our supposed Age of Distraction or turning the lecture hall into a digital playpen,” to suit the supposedly lowered attention spans of students, “we should think harder about how we can earn the attention of our students.”
Gaining attention has always involved a struggle of ideas and ideals. The Protestant Reformation launched a veritable literacy campaign as thousands of hitherto nonliterate believers sought to read the vernacular Bible. In the 19th century, barely educated socialist workers throughout Europe taught themselves how to read because they associated literacy with human emancipation. Captivating content always trumps distraction. In the end, what motivates students is not the availability of fancy gadgets but the quality of the content of their education.
The act of paying attention to a text, a lecture, or a speech is mediated through culture. Literacy comes into its own when people read what matters to them. Today, not even the sound of shots being fired on the battlefield in Northern Iraq can distract Kurdish Peshmergas fighters from attending night schools to learn how to read. For these fighters, reading is an integral dimension of their cause.
Unfortunately, in many universities reading is not seen as a cause worth fighting for. Academics who ought to know better have accepted the idea that students no longer possess the attention span required to read a book.
This prompts a couple thoughts.
First, there’s a long history of worries about new media, or technologies, or economic movements, creating new and unprecedented levels of distraction. But there’s also a counter-history of developing ways to refocus, to concentrate in an age of print, or movable type, or television. (There’s even an argument that meditation helped make us human.) This is the argument I made in my last book, The Distraction Addiction:
Contemplative practices [developed in ancient Greece, the Levant, India and Asia] were a response to the turbulence caused by imperial expansion, political upheaval, global-trading networks, mass migrations, and urbanization. At its worst, life in Warring States China, ancient Greece, or a Middle East contested by Greek, Roman, and Persian empire builders was violent, turbulent, and brutal. In good times, city life offered pleasant diversions and an ever-growing range of distractions. Axial Age philosophers and spiritual leaders advocated rationality and nonviolence as a response to these trials, but they did something more: they reoriented religion itself, turning it away from what John Hick called “cosmic maintenance” — rituals and sacrifices designed to assure good harvests, the smooth passing of the seasons, and so on — and toward personal improvement and enlightenment. One moved beyond a life that was nasty, brutish, and short and ultimately created a better world by cultivating what S. N. Eisenstadt called a “transcendental consciousness”: an ability to step away from the world (sometimes almost literally, as with monastic and hermetic traditions, but more often psychologically) and observe it without prejudice or precondition. In other words, to observe it mindfully. To contemplate it.
The Axial Age came to an end around 200 BCE, but the evolution of, on one hand, complex societies, global economies, and empires and, on the other hand, institutions and spaces devoted to cultivating memory and contemplation continued. In the West, the monastery, the cathedral, and the university all evolved into vast machines for supporting and amplifying concentration. These institutions offered an escape from the everyday world, but they also depended on it. Medieval universities in Paris, Bologna, Oxford, and Cambridge raised barriers against the distractions of normal life while at the same time welcoming students, gifts, royal patronage, and high-tech supplies like paper, scientific instruments, and books.
Historians argue that the Internet is merely the latest in a series of irresistible technologies, going back to the invention of writing, that change human brains and the way people think. They’ve told only half of the story. There’s a parallel history of people responding to complexity and turbulence and technological change by creating contemplative practices that support concentration, encourage calm, and restore attention. Worldly distraction and contemplative practices are related: each shapes the other. It’s no surprise that ancient contemplative practices should find a resonance in today’s super-distracted world. They are tools made for worlds like this and for minds like ours.
Some professors advocate “embracing the culture of hyper attention and changing the educational environment to ‘fit the students’.” Because of the long history of the coevolution of distractions and contemplative practices, I’m skeptical that this is what teachers should do.*
Part of the point of any class, after all, is to change the way students think, and more generally to give them a greater degree of self-awareness about why they think in particular ways, or why they think this about that subject.
The challenge is teachers face is not to figure out how to teach in a post-attention age, or to teach down to students you assume are no longer as smart as you because Internet, but to figure out how to create practices that respond to this challenge.
* Maybe what these advocates really want is to change the starting-point for courses, so students find the course more approachable, and ultimately will be able to change the way they think. But I’m not sure.