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Attention Span: Our National Education Crisis, Part One

Click Here For Part Two

I have a number of different topics to cover over the next couple of months.  I will post most of these in the form of series.  Sometimes, as these series can be multi-parts (as many as ten), I will introduce a new series before a given series is completed.  Don’t worry, I also read books this way.   I never seem to be able to finish one book before I start another, hence I will have 5 or 6 books on the nightstand all partially read.
This article was originally published as a newsletter article for the college students of Dr. Oliver DeMille, later it was published on the website and is published here by permission of the author.
On October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Stephen Douglas finished his 3-hour address and sat down. Abraham Lincoln stood.
He “reminded the audience that it was already 5 pm,” and then told them that it would take him at least as long as Mr. Douglas to refute his speech point by point, and that Mr. Douglas would require at least an hour of rebuttal [1].
He recommended that everyone take a one-hour dinner break, and then return for the four additional hours of lecture. The audience amiably agreed, and matters proceeded as Lincoln had outlined.
“What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory?”[2]
This was only one of seven debates, and many people attended as many as they could.
In contrast, I was invited as a guest on the early morning NBC station newscast in Yuma, Arizona the day after the Columbine High School tragedy in Littleton, Colorado.
The primary purpose of my visit was to deliver lectures at the local community college and then give a speech at an annual foundation banquet—the title of my speech was along the lines of “What Jefferson Would Do to Fix Modern Problems.”
The Columbine coverage took up most of the hour, and when it came time for our interview the anchor turned to me and said, without any preview, something like: “What would Thomas Jefferson think about this Columbine tragedy—you have 30 seconds.”
I don’t remember my exact answer, but I tried to communicate that Thomas Jefferson would not try to analyze and solve such a problem in thirty seconds, and until our means of dealing with serious national problems stops being handled in 30-second sound bite opinions we will continue to see such problems—indeed, they will get worse.
With that our interview was over, we unhooked our microphones and left the studio.
But the event has troubled me ever since. Hundreds of television professionals asked similar questions over the next few days, and have done so repeatedly with hundreds of events since—answers are given in thirty second sound bites, people shake their head at the day’s latest shocking news, and then they go on about their work.
This is how we deal with problems in America today—and then we conclude by calling on government to fix everything.
We express opinions–in soundbites on television, at work and social events, and in restaurants and taxis. Then we shake our heads and go back to our lives.
We live on a steady diet of opinions, opinions, opinions. In 30-second doses. And then we forget and move on.
What is the difference between these two audiences—those who listened attentively for seven hours to Lincoln and Douglas and came back for more, and those of us who hear and express opinions lightly and then move on?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but these two audiences are drastically different—in their culture, their education, their habits and in their capacity to be free.
The group who heard Lincoln were capable of education, and capable of freedom. The latter group is largely incapable of either unless something changes.
Specifically, a great education ultimately comes down to one thing. Those who have it can gain a superb education. Those who don’t cannot. A nation of people with it can earn its freedom. A nation without it is either not free or in the process of losing its freedom.
If you are going to be a successful leader in the future, you must develop this trait. It is not just a nice thing to have, or a good thing—it is essential; it is vital.
Without it you cannot be a statesman and the world will be led by whoever has it—whether they are virtuous or not, good or evil, dedicated to moving the cause of liberty or some other cause.
You will probably not like to hear what I have to say about it—because it will mean that you have to change, and change is hard; I didn’t like it when I learned it–because I had to change.
Jefferson probably didn’t like it either, but he did it. Lincoln probably didn’t like it; but he did it. You must have this trait if you want to be a successful learner and become a leader.
The nation must have leaders with this trait if it is to stay free.
So, if I say things you don’t like, ignore that. Don’t ask, “Do I like what he’s saying?” Ask, “is it true? And what changes will I make because it’s true?”
Each of us needs this trait because each of us wants to fulfill our mission in life, to really make a difference in the world. So, even if it is hard to get this trait–and it is–it is worth it, and it is important.
The vital trait I speak of is attention span.
To be continued…..

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Comments (12)

  • Allen Levie

    Thank you, it was good to read this again.
    There has likely never been a time as important as this to communicate more often with our closest relations and even get involved in great things together digesting and building solutions that require days, months and years of well developed dialogue and action. We should then simultaneously broadcast our actions to an ever expanding audience of less and less involved but highly interested relations. Our personal habits and the tools we use ought to support and match this new structure.
    I think we need these in-depth yet optimized dialogues to balance out the fractionalized and opinionated flitting that is increasingly everywhere. In fact I don’t believe we have time for anything else.

    December 10, 2011 at 12:40 pm
    • Shanon Brooks

      Although I agree in part, I see the focus as actually spending time on self to develop a solid, founded opinion. Too often we have little to say in our constant communication.

      December 10, 2011 at 4:09 pm
  • Mark T. Ellis

    Time is the great challenge of our era. We have so many labor saving devices and ways to communicate instantly that we forget time. Those who still read books, listen to debates and participate in the same are using their time to intertwine spirit to spirit in a way that instantaneous communication never will. What a great story, an illustration of why we are losing our freedom; we disrespect time and what it is for.

    December 10, 2011 at 2:59 pm
    • Shanon Brooks

      Yes, we do need to slow down on a number of fronts. Monticello College is designed to create an environment where a good portion of the world is held at bay for the duration of our students campus experience. Where students can develop their ability to concentrate and most importantly, to listen to the quiet things.

      December 10, 2011 at 4:14 pm
  • Forrest Brown

    I am trying to get others interested in classical education, but most want what gets them a good job the quickest. I help start a weekly book club at work since there are a few who want additional training, but it is also hard there also. People in general only read about two books a year. Challenging, but we press ahead.

    December 10, 2011 at 7:57 pm
    • Shanon Brooks

      Keep your chin up and your eye on the ball.

      December 12, 2011 at 1:18 pm
    • Brandon M

      I have also started a book club to help get people educated and interested. It is tough and we do 1 to 2 books a year and attendance can be sparse at times. I have to keep telling myself that even if it helps improve one person then it is worth the time and effort. We will never know the full extent of our efforts even if they seem small. Keep up the good fight.

      December 13, 2011 at 10:19 pm
  • Ernest B. Paxson

    How can I obtain a copy of “Attention Span – Our National Education Crisis?” Thanks.

    December 10, 2011 at 8:50 pm
  • Eli Schultz

    Reading this makes me thankful that we homes educate our kids and have gotten RID of the TV. I noticed a huge difference in my oldest son’s attention span once he stopped watching mindless TV. Of course, getting rid of TV in every American home will not fix the problem of our short attention spans. We seemed to have developed a cultural mentality of on demand, fast food, get it quick… What’s frightening is that we have applied this mentality to our educational systems and as a result have several generations of people who can’t sit still long enough to really, really pay attention to something – unless of course it’s the Super Bowl 🙂

    December 12, 2011 at 1:10 pm
    • Shanon Brooks

      Monticello College is the place where this all gets turned around.

      December 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm
  • Attention Span: Our National Education Crisis, Part Two | Shanon Brooks

    […] Read Part One Here […]

    February 19, 2012 at 7:32 pm
  • Attention Span: Our National Education Crisis, Part Four | Shanon Brooks

    […] Read Part One Here […]

    March 19, 2012 at 4:34 pm

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