SWARTHMORE, Pa. —
Perhaps the most vivid example of our lost attention is TED and its famous 18-minute talks. I'm a huge fan of TED, having spoken at TED events several times myself. I think TED is a real gift to the world. Virtually all TED talks are interesting, and many are breathtaking. But in TED talks, we have some of the world's most subtle minds talking about some of the world's most complex ideas in 18 minutes! At TED events themselves, with live presentations, the simplification can be mitigated by post-talk discussion — with fellow audience members or with the speakers themselves. Some in the audience have questions or see connections or raise problems that have eluded you, and the post-talk interaction that enriches your understanding of the presentation is a key part of the TED experience. But when you watch these talks on your computer, it is just you and those 18 minutes. TED talks have been watched more than 1 billion times. This can't help but establish a standard for attention and tolerance of complexity that carries over into other parts of life. And the habit of thinking long and hard — of concentrating — gets degraded.
Many college professors have begun incorporating TED talks into their syllabi. The talks are so cutting edge, and so entertaining, that they are an attractive alternative to, say, an article in an academic journal. But when professors do this, they miss the opportunity to demand sustained attention from students and to nurture it.
Must we accept the short attention span generation as a fait accompli and cater to it, or can we reverse a powerful and I think destructive trend?
It would be foolish to expect commercial sources to force complexity on an unwilling public. For them, it's all about ears, eyeballs, and bottom lines. But there is some reason to hope that noncommercial institutions — especially educational institutions — can help reverse the attention-deficit trend by demanding more of their audiences. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth has shown that perseverance — what she calls "grit" — is a better predictor of academic success than IQ or SAT scores. Grit is about more than sustained attention. It is about responding to challenges by rolling up your sleeves and working harder. But sustained attention is surely a key part of grit. If people don't keep paying attention to a task, they can hardly be expected to persevere with it. We can also see the importance of teaching kids to pay attention in the outstanding success of KIPP charter schools, documented in books by Jay Matthews and Paul Tough.