In the last post on attention and formation, we looked at inward attention. By attending inward, the farmer recognizes the presence of wayward branches in a maturing evergreen that
Inward attention, as with upward and outward attention, is vital in the present work of both the farmer and the teacher. When we focus our gaze in these three directions, we develop a more complete picture of our current moment and our place in it. But the present moment is fleeting. As soon as we try to pin it down, we realize that it is past. And while many of us sense an indebtedness to the past, fixing our attention on the past is increasingly difficult.
Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of the humanities in Baylor University’s Honors Program, explains this difficulty as a consequence of our digitally-connected lives and consumption of various social media, which all seem to invite a “tyranny of the immediate.” According to Jacobs,
“The more time people spend on social media, the more prone they become to recency bias, and especially the form of recency bias that inclines us to believe that what just happened is far more important than it really is. Everyone everywhere is prone to recency bias, but I think we are more prone to it than any society in history because our media are so attentive to the events of Now, and we are so immersed in those media that anything that happened more than a week or so ago is consigned to the dustbin of history.”
Perhaps you sense this tyranny of the immediate in your own lives? At this very moment, my phone is in a drawer in a separate room just to avoid notifications of “breaking news” or pictures of my nieces and nephews that disrupt the attention I need to write this very post! So what are we to do?
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre makes the argument that one can only begin to ask “What I am to do?” if he can answer a prior question: “Of what story or stories to I find myself a part?” In other words, one must attend back in time, focusing on those people, places, and events preceding his existence. Both the farmer and the classical educator can assist us in this task.
When the farmer takes a cutting off of a larger evergreen with the hopes of the cutting establishing its own roots and becoming a saleable evergreen one day down the road, he is never under the illusion that any evergreen exists independent from the generations of evergreens on his farm. So too, the farmer sees his work always within a larger context of his predecessors. My Dad worked on the farm of his father-in-law, who, in turn, learned horticulture from his family in the Netherlands. When new land for his plants was purchased, I was (and remain) amazed at the ability of my Dad to tell me the stories of generations of families who stewarded the land with their own families.
As a 5th grader spending my summers in many of those fields, it was not uncommon to uncover arrowheads hidden within the dirt, remnants of a bygone era that filled us with wonder. In a moment, our attention was propelled backward in time, and our imaginations ignited with possibilities of how the land looked before it was our family farm, and how people used it well before Canada was even a country. Attending to the past, the farmer places the present work of his hands in context. He is humbled by his dependence on his predecessors and understands he not only stewards their land but also their stories, of which he takes part.
The Classical Christian Educator
In a classical Christian school, one of our hallmarks is our attention to the past. Sit in a Kindergarten room and see above the whiteboard a ball of yarn. One strand is pulled out from left to right to represent time. Beginning with Creation, moving through the life and resurrection of Christ, and passing through our current moment of 2019, the ball of yarn sits waiting to be unraveled. What a beautiful image for a student to begin with as they get a sense of themselves in that timeline of history.
Likewise, history forms the backbone of our curriculum and provides the context for all other texts our students study at Austin Classical School: from poetry to science, literature to art. Our students are trained to attend to a chronological unfolding of the past in order to guard against what CS Lewis dubbed “chronological snobbery”, that is, raising our noses at our predecessors for views and practices we consider “backwards.” Rather, we invite our students to understand the “Great Conversation” of individuals that came before us in order that they can add their own voice. If they are to see farther, they will do so echoing the words of Sir Isaac Newton, “because they stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Why Look Back?
In a forward-facing world that celebrates (and at times idolizes) novelty, there will be many who question the value of attending backward. Alan Jacobs sees two reasons this attention is valuable.
First, our failure to place present threats within a proper context leads us to become increasingly inaccurate (or incapable) in estimating their true threat. When all news is “urgent” it is difficult to believe that anything is urgent. Second, our failure to look backward means that we will find ourselves caught by surprise when truly urgent events erupt in the present because more often than not they are the product of subtle changes over time, which we failed to attend to.
To Jacobs’ two reasons, I would add a third: that is, proper attention on the past can develop a particular type of remembering that forms us into a grateful people. It can provide an antidote to our natural forgetfulness. We are not too different from the Israelites of the Old Testament who passed through the Red Sea on dry ground. Within days they fixated on their present circumstances (No water! No food!) and forgot their past reality (freedom from slavery in Egypt!). They were constantly being reminded of God’s work in their lives either through word or through the raising of Ebenezer stones (literally defined as “the stone of help”). This remembering broke them out of their fixation with present struggles and allowed them to look forward in faith and hope.
In the tyranny of the immediate, we need to be formed by attention on the past, and in the next post, we will conclude by seeing how this allows us to fix our attention forward, properly moving into the future.
Onward and upward,
Head of School
Austin Classical School