Guests on Volume 94: Maggie Jackson, on how multitasking exalts efficiency and promises the overcoming of bodily limitations as time is restructured and on the importance of attentiveness in sustaining personal and social order; Mark Bauerlein, on how technologies have rearranged the social lives of teens (and their expectations of education); Tim Clydesdale, on what the first year in college means for teens; Andy Crouch, on the physical basis of cultural life and how “culture making” is done; and Jeremy Begbie, on how music is a way of engaging with the order in Creation and on how writing and hearing music involves a recognition of likenesses in Creation and the exercise of “hyper-hearing.”
“Multitasking is just a way of layering the moment and . . . overcoming our bodily limitations and cognitive limitations.”
Author Maggie Jackson talks about our society’s predilection towards multitasking and what that means for our culture. She reflects on how contemporary success corresponds to a kind of control over time that enhances efficiency through speed and the fracturing of attention. A number of factors contribute to how people have developed these kinds of sensibilities, and they can lead to profound social and relational strain. Jackson comments that even as humans are primed for novelty and for freedom and space, their flourishing also requires ritual, repetition, and pause to create depth of thought and relationship. She fears we've gone too far in one direction at the expense of our attentive faculties.
“All of this we’re wrestling with didn't come in with the Blackberry, the cell phone, the iPod; we really have to look deeper to see where our neo-nomadic, mobile, split-focused world came from.”
Maggie Jackson continues her discussion about the importance of attention. Jackson argues that attention is essential to the highest relational and intellectual capacities of human beings, functions that bond people together at the deepest levels. And this attention needs to be sustained by more than just individual effort. It needs to be sustained and cultivated in the public spaces of our lives by public communities because we live and give attention in communities. Young people feel this need even as they are inundated with distractions and accept them, and this need should be acknowledged by people willing to give thought to the social impact of new (and old) cultural artifacts and technologies.
“One of their [the stewards of culture] jobs was to stand for the passage of knowledge and understanding, better tastes. And they had a duty. It was their responsibility as the elders to induct seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds into better things, into more serious endeavors.”
Mark Bauerlein talks about the ways of learning and living practiced by contemporary youth, how they impact the acquisition and use of knowledge and form intellectual habits, and what this means for the future of our society. Bauerlein is concerned that the level of immediate and continual connection between youths made possible and reinforced by modern technologies so absorbs and entrenches them in the minutiae of their peers that it is difficult to present and address aspects of life missing from their adolescent experience. Because of the ubiquity of this environment, how it pervades their existence in all the places where mobile communications reach, the particular nature and qualities of teen experience and the effects of this continual experience is greatly magnified to the exclusion of steadfast attentiveness, focused reading of literature, and personal and social maturation over time. Institutions and authorities which cultivate the latter fall by the wayside in the face of cultural forces that cater to, reinforce, and exploit natural adolescent inclinations.
“Hanging over the top of every professor’s lectern are two questions. The one is ‘So what?’ and the other is ‘Who cares?’ And if you don’t realize that those are there from Day 1 in a classroom and you don’t address those consistently and regularly with your students, you’re not likely to get through.”
Tim Clydesdale discusses the experience of freshmen year at college. He reflects on his own experience of leaving home and coming to Wheaton and joining a community of scholars of the wider world, and he contrasts his experience with the research he collected over a year of study contemporary freshmen. For many students through primary and secondary schools, the dominant paradigm of learning is bulemic: studying and gaining knowledge is for the sake of checking off boxes on the way to getting somewhere, as opposed to enjoying studies and being nourished in their minds as part of a process of maturation. After taking in the minimum amount of information necessary, students then regurgitate the information back at teachers. By the time they enter college, Clydesdale suggests they’ve been effectively inoculated against a love of knowledge, and professors face an uphill battle to teach them to learn. He connects this mode of learning with a particular American moral culture that is skeptical and antagonistic of authority. In this culture, students are the autonomous arbiters of moral knowledge, deciding what is good or evil without regard to moral authorities, if they are even recognized as such. Similarly, students are the autonomous arbiters of their education, the final judge of what ought to be learned or not, and authorities are distrusted in comparison to the self. Clydesdale connects this moral culture to a suspicion of history and a bias toward the new, as well as to the centrality of niceness in college society. Instead of cultivating reflection on the deep questions of meaning and life, students are overwhelmed with developing and using techniques to manage their lives without reference to the ends or purposes toward which their lives should be oriented.
“To be a farmer is different from having a theory of agriculture.”
Andy Crouch reflects on what is missing in contemporary discourse on culture. Crouch argues that talk of culture often portrays it as an abstract, monolithic entity ‘out there’ separate from us. Seen in this way, it is difficult to grasp how we are embedded in culture and how the Lord might be calling his people to engage it. Crouch suggests that we see culture as made of cultural goods which Christians are called not merely to critique, but also to create and cultivate, and that the creation of physical goods and artifacts is part of what God created humans to do and part of the trajectory of our redemption.
“[Music] is a way of engaging with the integrities of the created order.”
Theologian Jeremy Begbie on explains how music as more than simply pleasant or less pleasant collections of sounds, but as a way to engaging with the integrities of the created order, from our bodies to the rest of the world. This latter sense has in some ways been lost in the modern age in favor of a view of music that sees transcendent humans as simply imposing their designs upon a meaningless, unordered creation. Instead, Begbie argues that because God created all of Creation — including ourselves, attuning ourselves to the structures and order within Creation is key to discovering the joy and beauty and meaning God meant the Creation to provide and display.
“Love achieves its creativity by being perceptive.”
Jeremy Begbie continues his discussion on music and its essential relationship with Creation. He talks of artists and composers who are able to see incredible possibilities latent within the materials of Creation. In their attentiveness and perception, they creatively love that which they are given. Begbie also discusses the difference between seeing and hearing, and implications of and lessons from the metaphor of hearing on theology and knowledge and freedom.