It seems like most discussion about attention amounts of to a “worry-fest,” eventually spiraling into panic and over-reaction. The gist of every conversation is how to immediately extract more attention from distracted kids. But that whole way of thinking puts the cart before the horse. By this, I mean that we are not giving attention, itself, any respect.
Reality check: Which of these statements is true?
1. Attention is self-expression.
2. Attention is love.
3. Attention is social.
4. Attention can be more like fun than work.
5. Attention is the most valuable human resource.
6. All of the above.
Answer: six, sechs, de seis, 六, זעקס, sita
By treating attention as only a means to an end – which is exactly what the current epidemic of anxiety about attention does – we create a generation of kids that will ultimately be resentful about surrendering their attention, or having it wrestled away from them.
It’s no surprise that attention has become such a prized commodity.
Really, we can’t make up our minds whether attention is good or bad. We’re just as worried about kids paying too much attention to the wrong things, as we are about kids paying too little attention to the right things. After all, attention is our most valuable, most coveted personal resource. Why? Because it’s the space where things can happen, where thought can be translated into action. It is also how various groups, and especially businesses, make money from us. By gaining and holding our attention, especially where it can be validated by metrics like internet hits or TV ratings, advertisers strike gold. It’s no wonder, then, that we find ourselves at such a frenetic cultural moment.
When we command that there be either more or less attention, we seem to forget that such directives are in fact a rebuke of another’s selfhood. Presumably, we are taking their attention away from something else, which may well be what they prefer to attend to. Attention does not exist in a vacuum – it is an expression of mind, which must certainly be the essence of what we mean by “self.” Thus attention is a kind of self-expression. Alas, such insights do little to quell the fever to redirect attention toward matters of productivity. For example, daydreaming is a kind of attention to fantasy, but where are its proponents?
I can’t think of anyone who isn’t affected by the urgency for productive attention. To be honest, many hours of my week are spent helping young people to be more attentive, and helping schools tackle the challenge of holding student attention. I understand there can be no learning without attention; that attention is the fulcrum upon which learning tilts. However, there is also an emptiness in the relentless pursuit of attention, devoid of any concern with self-hood, and freedom of mind.
With respect to young people, any notion of freedom of mind has long been lost, buried by anxiety about school performance and grades, which are understood to be markers of future economic productivity. To be inattentive is to be out of sync with a market system that feeds on focus, both for production and consumption. It’s no mistake that we say “pay attention.”
The effect of this unacknowledged, but widely accepted system, should surely be at the center of a university education. How else to be an effective citizen? A responsible advocate for how one’s attention is deployed?
An appreciation of this phenomenon is at the center of David Foster Wallace’s notable commencement address to students at Kenyon College. Published in a small book called This is Water, Wallace expounds on how the purpose of going to college is not to learn how to think, but to decide what you want to think about. Of course Wallace has a notorious knack for getting to the heart of important matters. I believe that his message is thatyour life becomes where you decide to direct your focus. Note that this is a very different way of thinking about the worth of focus than as a cognitive ability enhanced by stimulant-induced release of more dopamine and norepinephrine into the pre-frontal cortex.
We should have a meta-discussion with students about how they use their attention before we begin teaching content. For years, I have advocated that teachers begin the school year or semester with a table-setting discussion about the cognitive ethics of the classroom. When we speak openly and respectfully to students about attention, we increase our chances that they will be generous in giving it at important moments. Instead, we cling to the “attention-on-demand” model, driven by a philosophy – especially in America – of personal responsibility.
Yet attention is far more social than most of us realize. The medicalized perspective of attention leads us mostly toward a reductive notion of attention as a mechanical function of the brain. This is not to say that psycho-stimulants aren’t useful – they certainly are. Still, we hardly ever acknowledge that attention lives in the spaces between people, to a much greater extent than it does within individual brains.
We should also acknowledge that attention is a habit more than a skill. There may be a few people that can generate attention on command, but the great majority of us cultivate a habit of intention that is contingent on a variety of situational factors. Most of these factors have to do with the social dynamics of a situation. A culture-wide, in-depth examination of these social dynamics would revolutionize how we educate children, and would put us more at peace with ourselves. People under twenty-five have already moved in this direction. The rest of us are pining for a kind of “self-discipline” among youth which will never be. Medication is simply a way to assuage that disappointment, until a different set of cultural expectations has become the norm.
The simple truth is that we shouldn’t teach people to attend, we should teach them to engage. With sufficient engagement, attention emerges naturally. Yet our heartfelt desire is for attention “on demand.” I suppose this has to do with the fact that everyone feels so rushed to accomplish things. Schools run on a schedule, so does work. There is always so much for us to do, and never enough time.
Isn’t it reasonable to conclude, then, that slowness is a radical expression of freedom? But where is there any space for the encouragement of slowness, or even for doing things that take a long time? People who attempt things that take a long time to complete operate well outside the mainstream. Such individuals are true idealists because they insist on marching to a slower tempo. Perhaps the only exception is athletes, who may take years to cultivate excellence in a sport. I guess it’s okay to take a long time to do things that focus on winning, or being a champion. Short of those goals, is slowness merely a waste of time? When did the meaning of “slow-paced” shift to being a subtle criticism?
The Western phenomenon of ADHD reflects our panic-stricken, reactive civilization. The process began from a place of concern about children who couldn’t keep up in school, but it has escalated to an obsession. The expectation for attention on demand has made us frustrated, irritable, and chronically dissatisfied. The most deeply afflicted have already stopped reading this article – it doesn’t validate their fear, or provide immediate solutions. Panic wants relief or more alarmism, not reflection.
When I began writing about executive functions more than a decade ago there was an emergent cultural feeling that executive skills were essential tools for success. We now believe this at such a deep level that anyone without above-average executive skills is likely to be marginalized; they don’t have the “right stuff.” Even worse, those occupations and activities that don’t require exceptional executive skills are rarely seen as activities of high status or importance. We seem most dazzled by rapid, precise thinking that produces remarkable, instant results. Thus the edgy, anxious, cultural atmosphere we have created is no accident. We did this.
Now we need a course correction, and mostly because it is essential to our individual freedom. The freedom to direct our attention to that which is personally important. Believe me, I understand the dilemma here. How are we to operate schools without some collective agreement on a common point of attention? But I don’t think we need to digress to extreme, unfounded concerns. We don’t need to convince students of the need for attention – they get it.
I believe students will be more generous and more flexible in offering their attention if we reciprocate by providing space for attention of their own design, and tempo. Such a change would make school more collaborative than hierarchical, which is also the path to greater happiness and community. Mostly we should stop treating attention as a scarce commodity, to be captured and redirected by people of authority.
The great majority of us are not advertisers, and should not live as though our purpose is to sell something to one another. There is a kind of poison in that sort of habit. It’s like trying to motivate someone to do what we want them to do, regardless of what seems right to him or her. Ultimately, we can’t occupy someone’s mind or attention without their permission.
It’s joyful to be a worker bee when the effort is of your own design, and for a purpose with which you identify. All the rest is obligatory toil, and tangential to one’s spirit. That’s not a problem to be solved. It’s human nature.
The conversations I am suggesting here are central to re-visioning the purpose of youth, including parenting and education. Please let me know if your community is ready to engage these ideas at a deeper level, in the interest of creating close communities, and lives of purpose for young people!
Typically, I work with more than one group during a visit. Sometimes there is opportunity for more intensive work with smaller groups of students, following a larger presentation.
Thank you for sharing this newsletter with anyone who might be interested in the content. I write this newsletter to decrease the sense of separation we sometimes feel, especially when struggling with a problem. My effort is only worthwhile if the message has some velocity.
Further thoughts can be found at my most recent blog posts. As always, be well.