To My Students,
As I said in my first letter, I want you to understand about rules: why they matter, when they should be resisted, and that ultimately it’s not about rules – or shouldn’t be. I hinted that there was more I wanted for you.
Just as the nature of rules is paradoxical, the next two things I want for you are paradoxical as well. They involve usefulness and attention.
Many students ask their teachers, “When are we ever going to use this stuff?”
On the one hand, the answer might be, “Maybe never.” On the other hand, the answer might be, “Maybe every day of your life.” You just never know. I want you to understand that the idea of something being “useful” is not as obvious as it might seem. We teachers are told that most of you will have jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. If your jobs haven’t been invented yet, how can we, or you, possibly know what skills or knowledge might be useful for ? Even in the world of current, existing jobs, you may be bound for a career you’ve never heard of just because there are so many careers in the world. So you simply don’t know what will be useful.
But I also want you to understand that what makes things useful may not be job-related at all. Some things are useful because they help shape who you are as a person. Learning a difficult subject, even if you will never “use” it in the future, teaches you habits of the mind, like perseverance, diligence and curiosity. Learning a difficult subject also teaches you things like problem solving, logic, and creativity – habits of mind and habits of character that will serve you well in any field of endeavor – and in your personal life. You don’t know what kinds of difficulties you may face in the future, or what kinds of research, thinking, and insight you might need to use to overcome them. You may find that you or one of your children are struck with a rare disease, or caught in a natural disaster, or caught up in a terrible conflict with someone close to you. Those lessons you learned in science or reading or from the novel you read in 7th grade may hold the key insight that helps you overcome a hardship. I, when I have a physical ailment of some sort, I use my “home version” of the scientific process to figure out what’s causing it. I still live by the lessons I learned in Narnia or by listening to Atticus Finch talk to Scout. Paying attention to the things you are asked to learn is a good thing– you never know what might come in handy.
Paying attention is a habit of mind all its own – perhaps the most important habit of all. I want you to understand the importance of attention. We ask you to pay attention. It is a payment of sorts because by paying attention to one thing – what we want you to learn – you must give up paying attention to your cellphone, your friend across the room, your daydream. It is a struggle for many of you, partially because you don’t see the usefulness of what we are asking you to learn. But I want you to understand that attention is not just a school issue – it is a life issue.
In fact, what is your life, but the sum of what you pay attention to? How you pay attention doesn’t just control your success in school. Relationships are built and broken on how well people pay attention to each other. Jobs are kept are lost. Ideas that could improve your life forever could be noticed or ignored – depending on what you pay attention to. People are cheated or avoid being cheated by how well or poorly they pay attention.
By asking you to pay attention, we are asking you to practice a skill that will lead you to live a better life. Our world is full of distractions: gadgets, trivial information, temptations of every kind. By selecting what you focus on and what you ignore, you give your life a path and sense of purpose. Simply letting your attention flit around aimlessly leads… no where.
But as always, there’s a paradox. Some distractions, some things that lie off the beaten path, are exactly the kinds of things we need to pay attention to. Pay attention to the homeless musician playing the violin in the subway. Pay attention to the sunset that will never appear again. Pay attention to your younger sister or brother who wants you to read them a book. I want you to pay attention to your attention. Your attention determines your experience, and how others experience you.
What you pay attention to is often determined by what you find useful. And what you think will be useful is often what you pay attention to.
So I want you to be open minded about what is “useful.” Anything and everything can be useful. It just depends on how you pay attention to it.
And I want you to pay attention to how you pay attention and what you pay attention to. I want you to be mindful.
The ability to be open-minded and mindful – those are two more things I want for you.
Of course the other thing that makes students not want to pay attention to school is that whether things are useful or not, they sometimes seem boring, uninteresting.
Boredom and interest. There’s more I want for you – and next time we’ll start with those two paradoxes.