The urgency of slowing down — to find the time and space to think — is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context. “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
When telegraphs and trains brought in the idea that convenience was more important than content — and speedier means could make up for unimproved ends — Henry David Thoreau reminded us that “the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages.” Even half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan, who came closer than most to seeing what was coming, warned, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” Thomas Merton struck a chord with millions, by not just noting that “Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest,” but by also acting on it, and stepping out of the rat race and into a Cistercian cloister.
Three values are at the heart of the practice of science and engineering and are central to discovery and innovation: searching for uncertainty, recognition of ambiguity and learning from failure. Therefore, it makes sense to nurture these values in school. In sharp contrast, popular education policies ignore ambiguities in assessment data and punish failure as determined by uncertain evidence. Unless checked, the latter will undermine the former.
Cathy Davidson, founder of Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, in her new book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn is a fascinating meditation on how “attention blindness,” has produced one of our culture’s greatest disconnects, the inability to reconcile the remarkable changes induced by the digital age with the conventions of yesteryear’s schools and workplace.
There are some common skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic (but not many). Each area must be discovered, expanded, tested, and rigorously honed. (As they say in the marketing world, most people have never tasted their favorite breakfast cereal.) And someone who loves cooking may have to fill in the non-intuitive and uncomfortable skill of reading a balance sheet if they want to open a restaurant. But educational activities that involve large passive groups are delaying tactics in meeting these goals, not solutions.
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