A Crisis of Attention and Intention

As students across the country gear up for end-of-the-year blow-outs and graduation parties, there will surely be plenty of reminiscing—drunkest nights, most hilarious hook-ups, funniest first impressions. But how much will students be talking about their favorite professors and the quality of their ideas? To be sure, college has always been about far more than classes, but in the age of text messaging and increasing pre-professionalism, do students still care about the life of the mind?

According to Josh Waitzkin, a 2003 graduate of Columbia University, not much. When he returned to his favorite political theory professor's course a few weeks ago, he slid into a seat in the back of the lecture hall and opened up his trusty spiral notebook. As he stared down at the sea of students, he realized how much had changed in the few short years since heds been gone.

Professor Dennis Dalton began his lecture on Mahatma Gandhi's mass civil-disobedience campaign following the Amritsar massacre, focusing on the Indian activists' persistence in staying attuned to their own inner morals despite the crush of British imperialism. The students flipped open their laptops and started clicking away. A few solely took notes, but many flipped back and forth between multiple windows: shopping on Amazon, cruising Facebook, checking out The New York Times Style section, reorganizing their social calendars, e-mailing, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia. Josh kept a list because he was in such disbelief.

Was it just a random day, a random classroom, a particularly restless group of college students? Or was it a profoundly sad statement about the state of our distracted minds and the biggest challenge facing all of us in this 24/7, high-tech time: the crisis of attention and intention?

I have to believe the latter. For a few months now, I've been obsessed with the concept of attention and how it is our most precious contemporary commodity. As historian and rhetoric aficionado Richard A. Lanham argues in his latest book, The Economics of Attention, in an age of information overload, it is our capacity to zero in on the most valuable and joyful that determines the quality of our lives and the future of the planet.

Everyone is vying for our precious attention—political candidates, Victoria's Secret, tech manufacturers, restaurant chains, YouTube, cleaning product companies, media outlets, children, The Gap, parents, blogs, friends, JetBlue, even pets. The average adult sees 1,000 advertisements a day. Internet users spend 32.7 hours per week online and about half as much time watching television (16.4 hours). Teens, not surprisingly, are most likely to participate in what tech experts call "concurrent media exposure"—using various media simultaneously. Among this crush, how well are we staying attuned to our own inner morals? How intentional are we about whom we let sap our energy, at what times, and in what ways?

Take those Facebook-surfing students, missing out on a potentially life-changing lecture about war and courage. Their diffused attention isn't criminal, but it certainly doesn't do justice to professor Dalton's lectures, their own potential for learning, or the $51,976 they or their parents are paying for a year of Ivy League education. They mirror something very real in most peoples' lives—the sense that your life is happening "to you," instead of feeling truly intentional about how, with whom, and on what you spend your time. How many times have you complained about how long you spent emailing -- as if some ambitious demon inhabited your body and kept incessantly pecking away at the keys?

Waitzkin, who is, not coincidentally, the author of a book called The Art of Learning and an expert in pedagogy, wrote professor Dalton's current students a letter on the subway ride home from that disappointing walk down memory lane. In it, he urged them:

I understand that your minds move quickly and we are all impacted by a fast paced culture, but do you realize the horror of shopping online while Dalton describes…mothers throwing their children into a well to avoid a barrage of bullets? What are you doing? There comes a day when we must become accountable for our own learning process…Take it on. This is your life. What is the point of neurotically skipping along the surface when all the beauty lies below? Please seize the moment and listen deeply to Dalton's final lectures. Close the computers. Stop typing madly and soak in the themes he develops…Learning is an act of creativity, not mind-numbing, tv watching passive receptivity.

As you might imagine, it caused quite a stir when professor Dalton distributed Waitzkin's letter to the class. The previous semester, the entire college had considered a computer ban in classrooms, but the students and some of their professorial allies argued that it was an infringement on students' rights, and the idea was promptly dropped. (Professor Dalton, an anarchist, says that while the laptop use during his lectures saddens him, he would never ban the students from doing it.)

Some students experienced the letter as a scolding, just the complaints of an out-of-touch former student. But some experienced it as a wake-up call. These are excerpts from e-mails sent to professor Dalton:

I think it is due more to the fact that the standards of this college force us to be active and multitask almost all day long. And I mean all day long. So for these students, these precious minutes when they can finish shopping for their high-heels because they're going to their eight internships after class may be impossible to pass up.

It was with relief that I read Mr. Waitzkin's letter. Save for underlining passages you read from the book, I spent today's class simply listening, and strangely enough, I felt relieved. Perhaps this was because my own speculations had been affirmed by someone with more authority than a college sophomore, or perhaps it was in part because the abruptly cheerful weather dampened the competitive, anxiety-inducing tension that lingers in the air enough for me to inhale. Whatever the reason, by finally allowing myself to truly listen, I was able to take more from today's class than I have from any other lecture you've given.

I see Waitzkin's letter to these students as a letter to us all. Their passivity, their misplaced priorities, their degraded educational experience has a lot in common with the frenetic pace and compromised lifestyles that too many of us lead. It is as if we have all been swept up in the hurricane of contemporary life without realizing that it is our own complicity that gives the storm its overwhelming force.

This is not an anti-tech argument or a back-to-the-land manifesto. It is a reminder that our technology is only as enlightened as our use of it. Our productivity is only valuable so long as it is paired with excellence and excitement. Our memories are ultimately populated by sensory experiences, the highs of connection and lows of disconnection, not the mind-numbing march of checking off items on our to-do list while half-listening to the drumming profundity of our own lives.

Whether it is a professor you are tuning out or the sound of your own deeper wisdom, it is time to reclaim responsibility. No matter how fast we move, or how much we do, our time on Earth is just as short. As Waitzkin says, "Take it on. This is your life."