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Volume 5, Number 10
October 2005

"Pay attention!" When we were children, we heard these words countless times from our parents and teachers. And now, we probably find ourselves saying them to our children and our students. But what does paying attention to a person or situation really mean? Are observing and listening enough, or is more required? In this month's essay, Brad Sullivan, associate professor of English at Western New England College, explores the meanings and importance of attention as he describes the special role liberal arts education plays in cultivating attention in our students. He argues that if educators are mindful of this role, they can teach their students skills that will ensure a lifetime of focused work and responsibility.

--Kathleen S. Wise, Editor


Liberal Arts Education and the Cultivation of Attention
By Brad Sullivan
Polling Institute Director
Associate Professor of English
Western New England College

Robert Bell’s comments in the February 2005 issue of LiberalArtsOnline were stimulating in a number of ways, but one particular point really stood out for me. Bell quoted Simone Weil, who said with great wisdom that "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity." I immediately connected this statement with everything that I consider important about what I do as a writer, a teacher of poetry and fiction, and a scholar of nineteenth-century literature. Over the years I have gradually become convinced that one of the best arguments for a liberal arts education, and for the kinds of learning typically involved in English, art, history, philosophy, and other liberal disciplines, is that it is particularly well-suited to cultivate attention in students. And attention, like listening, engenders genuine and lasting learning.
So why do we tend to ignore the issue of attention in American education? Beyond a general insistence that students pay attention, we don’t generally consider attention to be a topic for focused inquiry. Yet attention is a complicated, interesting phenomenon that has a vital bearing on almost every human activity. The quality and kinds of attention that we can generate and sustain determine the kind of life we lead. Attention can be used to maintain habits or to break them, to focus on certain elements of our experience or to open our minds so that our experiences can speak to us. It is a mental disposition that we should become more familiar with and be more conscious of. In short, we should attend to the issue of attention in our lives and in the lives of our students. If we are to help students develop a "life of the mind," we need to help them cultivate the appropriate kinds of attention for that life. Liberal arts education is well-suited to do this work.                                                                           
Gregory Bateson, in his groundbreaking book Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, offers us a number of key insights about mindfulness. I will mention here two of his statements about "how we know" because I believe they are vital to our better understanding of attention and its importance in learning. The first statement, "nothing has meaning without context," reminds us of the many factors that surround any subject or situation that we explore. The second statement, "all knowledge is subjective," highlights the problem of claiming objectivity and encourages us to reflect on the discipline required to overcome—or at least recognize and counterbalance—our personal assumptions and predispositions. Liberal arts education, at its best, continually reveals these truths and cultivates the kinds of attention that help us to make good use of them.

Historical perspective is vital to understanding the contexts of any situation. Cultural critic Neil Postman, in his book Technopoly, suggested that we should teach every subject as history in order to help young people understand that "knowledge is not a fixed thing but a stage in human development, with a past and a future." And the liberal arts—particularly the humanities, but more and more the sciences too—are grounded in historical perspective. To understand the kinds of knowledge that have come from centuries of inquiry, we need to have a better and fuller sense of the process by which that knowledge came to be.

The liberal arts, especially in an age of growing commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry, also direct our attention to other important contexts: systemic connections that transcend particular areas of study. How do changes in political stances and actions emerge from changing economic conditions? How do new ideas and models gradually pervade and shift the world of science? How does the literature of a period reflect, and shape, the social practices of that time? How do new technologies affect the way we think and respond to each other? Liberal study focuses attention on these important kinds of questions, helping us not only to solve but recognize problems with our existing models and methods.

Bateson’s insistence that all knowledge is subjective sounds worrisome at first, but it is a simple statement of epistemological fact. Knowledge always begins in personal engagement, inquiry, and critical consideration. It is never separate from the experiences and predispositions of the knower. But we must cultivate attention to this fact in order to help students develop an objective stance. Only by considering their own assumptions, and opening their minds to new possibilities, can they make their personal knowledge valuable to others. The liberal arts encourage students to reflect on and interpret their experiences. When writing essays, students develop claims about meaning and learn to support those claims with evidence rather than "gut reactions." When exploring and analyzing complex human issues, students focus their minds on the work of making well-considered moral and ethical choices. Experience-centered, inquiry-centered liberal arts learning helps them to cultivate and practice the kinds of attention that will make them intelligent observers, diligent critics, and thoughtful actors on the stage of human life.

In so many ways, liberal arts education encourages young people "to attend" or "to be present"—not only with their physical presence, but also with their active mental engagement and involvement. Our culture does not prepare them—or us, for that matter—for this work. And it is work! To focus our busy minds on one task, one person, one idea, is not easy. It’s so much simpler to drift from one thing to another, sliding smoothly along. Why finish that homework when something good is on TV? Why listen to the prattling of our three year old when we have work to do? Why stick with the work we’ve started when the going gets tough? "Being present" means coming back to the work at hand, staying with it, living with it through the good and not-so-good moments. Textual studies, and close reading, require—and cultivate—this kind of attention. 

As we cultivate attention, we learn to attend in another sense: "to accompany or wait upon as a companion or servant." When we listen well, and read patiently, we "wait upon" others. We serve them with our willingness to hear their points of view, to consider alternatives, and to respect them as human beings like and unlike ourselves. We give them, as Weil claims, the gift of our attention. And as we do so, we form relationships and create eunoia—the good will that makes social life possible. The patience of reading, the slow work of interpreting texts, the gradual accumulation of understanding that comes with historical and philosophical study, all require us to wait upon others and to develop a capacity for doing so.

In yet another sense, to attend means "to take care of" and "to take charge of." Liberal arts study can encourage this kind of attention, leading students toward stewardship and responsibility. History, philosophy, and literature remind us of the complexity of causes and effects, making us aware of the many factors that contribute to change. Yet they also reveal the importance of individual choices, of determined actions carried out in the face of opposition, and of values embodied in lifetimes of effort. The liberal arts make it possible for students to sound the sufferings and the possibilities of human life. Becoming aware of need, they may seek to meet it. Becoming aware of the struggle for meaning, they may learn to take responsibility for their part in it.
Finally, to attend means "to apply or direct oneself." And shouldn’t this be the essence of liberal arts education? To develop interests, to inquire, to learn the self-discipline of following an inquiry over time? Since history, philosophy, literature, and even the "pure sciences" don’t offer final answers, students are faced with the challenge of making sense of the subject matter and applying it to the world around them. The work of reading and considering, discussing ideas and possibilities, experimenting, asking questions, and formulating answers becomes second nature for students of liberal arts. They learn to strive for understanding and excellent performance, and to continue striving even when the immediate rewards are small. And these habits often remain central to their lives after they leave college. 

As educators, we can apply and direct ourselves by attending more closely to the problems—and possibilities—of attention in our students. We can focus our efforts on creating liberal arts experiences that help students to become better listeners, more aware of their common human situation and more aware of the differences in their experiences and interpretations of life’s meanings. We can call attention to the importance of context, of connections, and of personal engagement and responsibility for knowing. We can cultivate patience, discipline, and consideration. We can help students attend to the importance of managing their own attention, and we can cultivate and nurture their attention in significant and life-enriching ways. And that is good work, indeed!


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The comments published in LiberalArtsOnline reflect the opinions of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Center of Inquiry or Wabash College. Comments may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author(s), LiberalArtsOnline, and the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College.