September 28, 2013

Schools need to teach students to maintain attention

SWARTHMORE, Pa. — There is no doubt that "diminished attention" is a correct diagnosis of the intellectual temperament of our age. I see it to a greater degree each year even in the students I teach, who are among the very best that our high schools have to offer.

But how to treat it? Again and again, we are told in this information-overloaded digital age, complex and subtle arguments just won't hold the reader's or viewer's attention. If you can't keep it simple and punchy, you'll lose your audience. What's the point of having a New York Times article about the U.S. stance toward Syria that continues on an inside page if nobody is going to turn to the inside page? Even talking about "inside pages" is anachronistic, since more and more people get their news online, with articles that are "up-to-the-minute" but frustrating in their brevity.

By catering to diminished attention, we are making a colossal and unconscionable mistake. The world is a complex and subtle place, and efforts to understand it and improve it must match its complexity and subtlety. We are treating as unalterable a characteristic that can be changed. Yes, there is no point in publishing a long article if no one will read it to the end. The question is, what does it take to get people to read things to the end?

The key point for teachers and principals and parents to realize is that maintaining attention is a skill. It has to be trained, and it has to be practiced. If we cater to short attention spans by offering materials that can be managed with short attention spans, the skill will not develop. The "attention muscle" will not be exercised and strengthened. It is as if you complain to a personal trainer about your weak biceps and the trainer tells you not to lift heavy things. Just as we don't expect people to develop their biceps by lifting two-pound weights, we can't expect them to develop their attention by reading 140-character tweets, 200-word blog posts, or 300-word newspaper articles.

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