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Power Of Attention

Porter: "Attention is the power to concentrate effort."

Lilly: "Attention is the power of active self-direction."

Rosenkranz: "Attention is the power to adjust self to the object."

Hamilton: "Attention is consciousness concentrated."

ATTENTION is the focussing of consciousness, and as consciousness is not a particular faculty but the atmosphere which surrounds and informs all mental phenomena, so attention is not a separate faculty, but is the efficient power of consciousness which may attend and gives quality to every kind of mental activity, whether the object of that activity be objects without or ideas within.

We see, then, its immeasurable importance. It is the beginning and the middle and the end of education. How to get it, how to keep it, how to make it grow, is the fundamental problem of teacher and learner alike.

There are two conditions of its exercise: one physiological, the other psychical.

The physiological a sound and healthy brain. The psychical some form of mental interest.

For consciousness to focus itself the brain must be in vigorous condition and well supplied with nervous energy (essential depth of mind in brain). The blood must be well aerated. (A Greek professor raised the windows for fresh air; another indulged in a two-mile walk.)

As to mental interest: I believe we may recognize three kinds, automatic, associative, and voluntary. The first, when the interest is excited, directly or automatically, by an object itself; in the case of the young especially the sights and sounds of nature. Second, where the interest is excited indirectly by association or relation to other objects or experiences. Third, where the interest is due to some ulterior motive, which incites and brings into play, distinctly and forcibly, the activity of the will itself. For example, a politician remembering faces and names; or Mr. Blaine making himself master of parliamentary rules.

The history of mental progress may be said to be the history of the transition from the lower or automatic form to the higher or voluntary form of attention. And the inspiration and the guide of this transition is some form of interest.

In childhood and youth attention is aroused and dominated chiefly, if not entirely, by the attraction of the properties and form of natural objects and their changes. It is interesting to note how objects like the magnet seize upon the child's mind and sense.

Now it is important for the teacher to bear in mind that it is the first or automatic kind of interest that is chiefly to be relied upon in the case of youth. For the will is weak. Wilfulness in youth is like a child driver with a team of bronchos. The possibility of associative interest is slight, for associations are few.

Therefore, make the object attractive directly, if possible, by picture alphabets and jingling rhymes and marching, teaching children about housekeeping. (Not philosophy, history, and their kindred.) Make association interesting by connecting it with what is already known. For, while too long or great familiarity destroys interest and therefore destroys attention, too great dissimilarity acts likewise and fails to arouse it. (For instance, an Indian boy with a watch; Darwin's ships and Terra del Fuegans.)

But can the third or higher kind of attention, voluntary attention, attention from motive, be brought into action at all at this early stage? I believe it can fitfully, spasmodically, but still real so far as it goes and so long as it lasts. That motive in the child, although there may be others, will be the approbation of the teacher. A child's affection for its teacher will work wonders in this respect. The little child driving the team of bronchos will tighten the reins and exert its little strength to the utmost to guide and control the restive team of its faculties out of love for its teacher.

It is important with all ages, and especially with youth, to avoid distraction. Young life, like the Fountain of Ammon, has an enormous surplus of nervous energy. A child's brain is like a summer sky filled with flames of sheet lightning. A hair trigger, a slight thing, will destroy equilibrium and pro-duce discharge. Activity of brain in young and old tends to be a consolidated and unified affair, determined now by this current, now by that, but determined as a whole. As a whole bell vibrates, so the whole brain reverberates at each discharge. Like the explosion of a keg of powder, the powder goes off all over.

In older scholars the teacher has a larger store of associations and relations to work upon to provide interest and thus fix or steady attention; and besides, the personal motive, of which we have already spoken, may bring other and wider motives to bear to incite the will more distinctly and strenuously to action such as love of mastery, achievement, even love of knowledge for its own sake.

Talmud: "Love of exceeding in excellence gets children to study."

But still, the law holds that the teacher should try to enrich the subject with additional relations and associations. For ex-ample, mathematics and philosophy are enriched by knowledge of the biographies of great masters. There is no such thing as prolonged and sustained holding of attention upon a subject destitute of interest, that does not scintillate and coruscate with new associations and new relations. Hamilton quotes Helvetius:

"Genius is a sustained attention, but it is his genius largely that makes him attentive, not his attention that makes him a genius."

But here, let us observe, there seems scarcely a limit to the intensity with which the will may work in attention. Therefore the motto: "Study not long but hard, work at high pressure."

Remember the rule of archery: Draw arrow to the head for all distances.

This makes the difference in men not so much difference of faculty as of energy. The colored pigment in the eyes is different not in kind but in quantity.

Remember Hamilton: "Tear the vitals out of a book."

Account for the mystery of transmission as we will, something of the intensity and vital energy with which we acquire a piece of knowledge passes over into that knowledge itself and makes it living. One man's knowledge may be a museum with its folios of dried plants and stuffed skins of birds and beasts; another's, a zoological and botanical garden, with beasts of agility and strength, birds of beauty and song, trees of living growth and bright foliage.

I may sum up in two quotations the gist of my remarks:

Adam Smith: "The secret of knowledge is directing vanity to proper objects. For we must find or make every object interesting, directly or indirectly, before the mind, through attention, will or can seize upon it, hold it steadily, assimilate it, and add it to its stores. But attention, simply for the sake of retention, is but partial and one-sided development."

John Locke: "The true end of education is not to store the mind with knowledge, but to give activity and vigor to its powers, true force and freedom to the play and direction of all its faculties. Mere acquiring of knowledge is no more mental force than the camel's bur-den is the camel's strength."

Energy of attention, then, through all the range of mental activity, is the first and the last word for teacher and learner alike. This is the price that must be paid for all real progress and advance.

The gates of failure open of themselves. The gates of all success must be stormed and won. The kingdom of a truly educated mind, a mind strong, flexible, efficient, trained to habits of intense and disciplined attention; the kingdom of mind, like the kingdom of any good, like the kingdom of Heaven itself, suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.

( Originally Published 1914 )

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