Diana Senechal on problems of distraction in education
“Our newer technologies do not cause our distraction, but they may encourage and exacerbate it. Postman warned that ‘in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself.’ Our Internet may contain the idea of luring us away from wherever we are and whatever we are doing: animated advertisements crawling across the screen, a popup survey, a registration request, links that promise to fill the gaps in the blogs we read. There is very little on the Internet that encourages us to stay put and read something several times. Instead, we are pulled on to the next thing, to readers’ brief comments on it, to comments on the comments, and to links from the comments to something else. . . .
“When we fail repeatedly to give our full attention to something that matters, we eventually conclude that it doesn’t matter all that much. We may decide that it is really the blogs, tweets, and texts that count — after all, they are reaching people and making it out into the wide world. . . .
“Distraction results in a scattering of intentions; to end distraction, one must gather oneself in some way; one must be willing to give something priority for a while. That is not a cure, of course; one does not overcome distraction just by granting importance to something. But this granting of importance is a start. . . .
“It seems obvious that schools should help students learn to read and work thoughtfully, to develop a life of the mind. Instead, there is a growing emphasis on visible activity and productivity. What isn’t visible or tangible seems threatening, because it could be anything or nothing. How do we know that students are learning if we can’t see signs of it here and now? How do we know that the class has accomplished anything if there isn’t a product to put on the wall? . . .
“Educators across the ideological and pedagogical spectrum agree that students should be engaged in their learning. But what does engagement mean? Does it mean that students take their studies seriously and work toward better understanding and mastery? Or does it mean that students show certain external behaviors — such as sitting up, looking up, taking notes, participating in groups, and never being idle? The internal and external forms of engagement are not necessarily at odds with each other. But when the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the external, students have no letup. They must show activity and results whether they have meaning or not. They must respond instantly to directions and stay on the mark at all times. Dreaminess and lingering questions have no place.
“To a great extent, American schools encourage students to rely on external stimuli and external results. The schools themselves, especially struggling schools, are in constant turmoil, so it is difficult to be still with anything. Year after year, they change their curricula, schedules, classroom setups, paperwork, pedagogical approaches, administrative structures, and more. . . .
“Why is it so difficult to tackle distraction in schools? Does it have some kind of appeal for the adults as well as the children? Or is it just so daunting that we give into it? One possibility . . . is that distraction masquerades as focus. When children are kept active with one fast-paced project after another, they don’t have a chance to fall out of line. Nor do they have to do anything particularly difficult. It looks as though the class is functioning well; administrators observing the class take note of the teacher’s control and the students’ participation. When the tests are not particularly challenging, the test scores, too, may indicate success. Many argue that the ends justify the means: if test scores are going up and discipline is good, the method must be working. But we must ask in what sense is it working.
“A more disturbing possibility is that we have paid too much homage to quick, visible results, no matter what their underlying value. We have become what Martin Buber described in 1923 as the ‘capricious man,’ who ‘only knows the feverish world out there and his feverish desire to use it.’”
— from Diana Senechal, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012)
John Milbank on how liberalism has a marked tendency to become illiberal
“[R]ecent events demonstrate that liberal democracy can itself devolve into a mode of tyranny. One can suggest that this is for a concatenation of reasons. An intrinsic indifference to truth, as opposed to majority opinion, means in practice that the manipulation of opinion will usually carry the day. Then governments tend to discover that the manipulation of fear is more effective than the manipulation of promise, and this is in keeping with the central premises of liberalism which, as Pierre Manent says [in An Intellectual History of Liberalism], are based in Manichaean fashion upon the ontological primacy of evil and violence: at the beginning is a threatened individual, piece of property, or racial terrain. This is not the same as an Augustinian acknowledgment of original sin, perversity, and frailty — a hopeful doctrine, since it affirms that all-pervasive evil for which we cannot really account (by saying, for example, with Rousseau that it is the fault of private property or social association as such) is yet all the same a contingent intrusion upon reality, which can one day be fully overcome through the lure of the truly desirable which is transcendent goodness (and that itself, in the mode of grace, now aids us). Liberalism instead begins with a disguised naturalization of original sin as original egotism: our own egotism which we seek to nurture, and still more the egotism of the other against which we need protection.
“Thus increasingly, a specifically liberal politics (and not, as so many journalists fondly think, its perversion) revolves around a supposedly guarding against alien elements: the terrorist, the refugee, the person of another race, the foreigner, the criminal. Populism seems more and more to be an inevitable drift of unqualified liberal democracy. A purported defence of the latter is itself deployed in order to justify the suspending of democratic decision-making and civil liberties.
“For the reasons just seen, this is not just an extrinsic and reactionary threat to liberal values: to the contrary, it is liberalism itself that tends to cancel those values of liberality (fair trial, right to a defense, assumed innocence, habeas corpus, a measure of free speech and free inquiry, good treatment of the convicted) which it has taken over, but which as a matter of historical record it did not invent, since they derive rather from Roman and Germanic law transformed by the infusion of the Christian notion of charity — which, in certain dimensions means a generous giving of the benefit of the doubt, as well as succor, even to the accused or wicked. For if the ultimate thing to be respected is simply individual security and freedom of choice (which is not to say that these should not be accorded penultimate respect) then almost any suspensions of normal legality can tend to be legitimated in the name of these values. In the end, liberalism takes this sinister turn when all that it endorses is the free market along with the nation-state as a competitive unit. Government will then tend to become entirely a policing and military function as J. G. Fichte (favorably!) anticipated. For with the decay of all tacit constraints embedded in family, locality, and mediating institutions between the individual and the state, it is inevitable that the operation of economic and civil rules which no individual has any longer any interest in enforcing (since she is socially defined only as a lone chooser and self-seeker) will be ruthlessly and ever-more exhaustively imposed by a state that will become totalitarian in a new mode. Moreover, the obsessive pursuit of security against terror and crime will only ensure that terror and crime become more sophisticated and subtly effective. We have entered a vicious global spiral.”
— From John Milbank, “Liberality versus Liberalism,” in The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology (Cascade Books, 2009). Milbank discussed his subsequent book, The Politics of Virtue, on Volume 138 of the Journal.
Glenn C. Arbery on poetry and the intelligibility of the inner life
“In an interview for Atlantic Monthly, Peter Davison asked Richard Wilbur what he was most grateful to poetry for, and Richard Wilbur replied, ‘I enjoy being able to do something with the important feelings of my life. I think that to be inarticulate can be a great suffering, and I’m glad that my loves, and my other feelings, have sometimes found their way into poems that fully express them.’ Two things struck me about this artlessly honest comment. First is that it is exactly the kind of thing most people would expect a poet to say, because poets, as everybody knows, are beings who not only operate in a finer register than most, but whose capacities with language also allow them to say ‘what often was thought, but ne’er so well expressed’; they are allowed to go around, unlike most working people, taking their feelings seriously. The second is that very few people in my experience of academic life have explicitly and seriously spoken of poetry or literature in terms of feelings, as Wilbur has here. Quite the opposite. Literature as it has usually been taught can be analyzed in all kinds of ways, but they always lead away from feelings to meanings — and for good reason. ‘The feelings,’ John Crowe Ransom writes, ‘are grossly inarticulate if we try to abstract them and take their testimony in their own language. Since it is not the intent of the critic to be inarticulate, his discriminations must be among the [literary] objects’ (‘Criticism as Pure Speculation’ 882).
“Both the poet and the critic, then, begin with feelings but must be concerned with articulation. When Wilbur says that poetry has allowed him to ‘do something with the important feelings’ of his life, he implies that they would have remained unrealized in themselves had he not found a poetic form for them. The emphasis does not lie on commemorating or preserving these feelings like pressed flowers, but on giving them wit and wakefulness. Understood in this way, feelings require expression. If, remaining inarticulate, they cause 'great suffering,’ it follows that their full expression underlies the greatest pleasures of poetry. Reading a good poem should mean being drawn by a language alive in every syllable into the significant emotion that both requires and finds such articulation. One should be brought to self-knowledge in the welcome of a large recognition. Great poetry invites its audience into the feelings of Zeus, Dido, Iago, Cordelia, Ahab, Emma Bovary, or Alyosha Karamazov, and by this generosity — I think of the host’s ‘you shall be he’ in George Herbert’s great ‘Love (III)’ — articulates, puts in context, and so forms the feelings, good and bad, recognizable to all.”
— from chapter 5, “The Intelligence of Feeling and the Habit of Art,” in Glenn C. Arbery’s Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation (ISI Books, 2001). Arbery discussed this book on Volume 50 of the Journal, focusing on the matter of how a work achieves form. Also, on Volume 103 of the Journal, he discussed the power of poetry to capture and communicate truths concerning a well-lived life.
Wendell Berry on the mediating responsibilities of poets
In a 1974 essay titled “The Specialization of Poetry,” Wendell Berry offered some observations about the then-current state of poetry, observations based on reading interviews with a number of celebrated poets. He regrets that it is all too common for contemporary poets to have made virtually “a religion of their art, a religion based not on what they have in common with other people, but on what they do that sets them apart. For poets who believe this way, a poem is not a point of clarification or connection between themselves and the world on the one hand and between themselves and their readers on the other, nor is it an adventure into any reality or mystery outside themselves. It is a seeking of self in words, the making of a word-world in which the word-self may be at home. The poets go to their poems as other people have gone to the world or to God — for a sense of their own reality. Louis Simpson, for instance, says to an interviewer: ‘I have a very funny sense of myself in the poem — I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about how the poems make a self for me.’ Later he says of himself and some of his contemporaries: ‘We had to be devoted to poetry for its own sake.’ And Mark Strand says: ‘I have the feeling that I am a metaphor for my own being.’ . . .
“The world that once was mirrored by the poet has become the poet’s mirror. This explains, I think, the emphasis upon personal terror and suffering and the fear of death in much recent poetry. When the self is one’s exclusive subject and limit, reference and measure, one has no choice but to make a world of words. And this gives to one’s own suffering and death the force of cataclysm.
“But the difficulties are more than personal. For one thing, the subject of poetry is not words, it is the world, which poets have in common with other people. It has been argued that modern poets were forced to turn inward by the disposition of their materialistic societies to turn outward. But that argument ignores or discounts the traditions that have always bound poetry to the concerns and values of the spirit. This ancient allegiance gives poets the freedom, and perhaps the moral imperative, to turn outward. It is certainly no accident that Yeats, perhaps the most spiritual poet in our language in our era, was also perhaps the most political. As regards this connection between humans and the world, the specialization of poetry is exactly analogous to the specialization of religion. Putting exclusive emphasis upon a world of words has the same result as putting exclusive emphasis upon heaven; it leads to, and allows, and abets the degradation of the world. And it leads ultimately to the degradation of poetry and religion. Renunciation of the world may sustain religious or poetic fervor for a while, but sooner or later it becomes suicidal.
“This exclusive emphasis upon language leads also to the degradation of general literacy. Not so long ago it was generally thought that in order to be a writer a person needed extraordinary knowledge or experience. This, of course, frequently led to some willful absurdity in the life of a young writer. But it also suggested a connection — even a responsible connection — between art and experience or art and the world. What we have too frequently now, in the words of hundreds of poetry reviews in the time of my own coming of age, is the notion that what distinguishes a writer from a nonwriter is, first and last, a gift and a love of language. Writers, that is, are not distinguished by their knowledge or character or vision or inspiration or the stories they have to tell; they are distinguished by their specialties. This is a difference not of degree, but of kind. And the resulting absurdities are greater than before, and more dangerous. The power of such notions among the college-bred is suggested by a statement of Mr. John W Dean III: ‘I would still like to be a writer. Maybe I will write a book. I love to play with words and twist phrases. I always play Scrabble.’”
“If both writer and reader assume that the writer’s gift makes him or her a person of a radically different kind, then it seems that the relation between writer and reader must be radically reduced. Reading a book becomes merely a diversion. A writer such as Shakespeare is of course distinguished by his language, which is certainly his gift and his love. But his language is, after all, the common tongue, to which his gift is uncommon grace and power; without his commonness we could neither recognize nor value his distinction.
“One of the first obligations of poets is certainly to purify the language of the tribe — but not merely to write poems with it. The language of the tribe used by a specialist-poet to produce a poem ‘for its own sake’ can only describe the boundaries of an imprisoning and damning selfhood. Joyce Carol Oates says, writing of Sylvia Plath: ‘When the epic promise of ‘One’s-self I sing’ is mistaken as the singing of a separate self, and not the Universal self, the results can only be tragic.’ There is a sense of balance that is missing from the atmosphere that now surrounds much of the writing and much of the criticism of poetry. This sense of balance would lead and lead again to the poet’s place of responsibility between the poem’s readers and its subject — which is also the reader’s subject. It would see words as fulcrums across which intelligence must endlessly be weighed against experience.”
— from Wendell Berry, “The Specialization of Poetry, ” in Standing by Words: Essays (Shoemaker & Hoard, 1983). On Volume 148 of the Journal, Jeffrey Bilbro (Virtues of Renewal: Wendell Berry's Sustainable Forms) offered some thoughts about how — in his poems, novels, and essays — Berry fosters a sense of propriety or fittingness, a manner in which we ought to act with the world around us.
Calvin Stapert on the evolution of an ancient musical-liturgical tradition
“Bach’s Passions belong to a long musical-liturgical tradition. Musical renditions of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s final suffering and death have deep roots in Christian worship. Tangible evidence goes back as far as the fourth century, when a Spanish nun named Egeria, while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, described the chanting of the Passion story in Jerusalem during Holy Week. The practice of chanting the entire story directly from one of the Gospels spread throughout Christendom during the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, composers started to set the Passion story in simple harmonizations. Sometimes the entire story was in parts, but more usually the narrative continued to be chanted, and part-singing was reserved for the words spoken by the various groups of people and, sometimes, also for the words spoken by individuals.
“After the Reformation the Lutheran Church retained the ancient practice. Luther’s friend Johann Walter provided simple models for singing the Passion in which the narration and the words of individuals were chanted and the words of groups were sung to simple recitation formulas harmonized in four parts. This way of rendering the Passion story was still being used in Leipzig during Bach’s tenure.
“About the middle of the seventeenth century, musical settings of the Passion began to change both textually and musically. The words no longer came directly from the Bible. Instead the story was retold in newly written poetic verse called ‘madrigal’ texts. Under the influence of opera, chanting and simple part-singing were replaced by recitatives, arias, and choruses accompanied by instruments. They no longer maintained the ancient liturgical mooring in the exact words of the Bible; instead they were devotional concert music. Especially popular was a text by Barthold Heinrich Brockes that was set to music by Handel, Telemann, Matheson, and others.
“Bach’s Passions, however, were liturgical. They are more aptly called ‘oratorio Passions.’ Despite including madrigalian text, they retain the key ingredient of the ancient liturgical tradition: singing the words of the Passion narrative verbatim from one of the Gospels. In addition to the biblical text and madrigal poetry, they include chorales. The familiar texts and melodies of these congregational songs add to their liturgical fittingness. Both types of non-biblical text function as responses to the various scenes in the story. The madrigal poetry, sung as recitatives and arias by soloists, represents individual responses; the chorales, sung by the choir, represent communal responses. In both cases they draw the contemporary worshiper into the ancient story.
“In Leipzig the old style Passions, for example those of Johann Walter, were still sung in Bach’s time in the Good Friday morning Eucharist service. The elaborate new style Passions were performed in the Good Friday Vespers service, which began at 1:30 in the afternoon with the singing of a Passion chorale, ‘Da Jesu an den Kreuze stand’ (‘When Jesus hung on the cross’). The Passion and sermon followed. The Passion, divided into two parts like the larger cantatas, framed the sermon. The service concluded with a motet, the verse and a prayer called the collect, the benediction, and a final chorale.”
— from Calvin R. Stapert, J. S. Bach (Lion, 2009). Stapert has been a guest several times on the Journal, most recently on Volume 127 talking about the life and work of Joseph Haydn.