Civic Virtue in an Age of Distraction
When I teach my class on political theory, I always start with a speech that goes like this: “The texts that I am assigning in this class are difficult. When you read them, you need to find a quiet place, away from television, computers, and cellphones and give these readings your full attention.” The advice is good, but I hope my students never see me reading. When enjoying a book at home, my laptop is usually on the floor at my feet, and my cellphone is close by. Even worse, I do most of my reading on a tablet computer, which means that email alerts occasionally spring up from the bottom of the page. At work, I do better, but I still often am distracted by email or the Internet.
We all know how cellphones, computers, and other technologies distract us. At one level, this is a reality of life today, something we have to get used to and learn to manage. But in the context of education, these distractions are more pernicious. In an age when so much information can be accessed so quickly, students are tempted to move on to the next thing before they give more than a superficial glance to what is already in front of them. Among the greatest challenges teachers face today is to get students to maintain their focus, to study and think patiently, to discover what lies beneath the surface.
This is not just a problem of academic habits. Those who lack the capacity for paying attention are likely also to lack the capacity for empathy and compassion. Genuine human connection is not formed by clicking a “Like” button on a screen. Instead, it takes an effort of attention to come to know and care about others. If we cannot give our attention, then our relationships will be as superficial as our thinking. In an age when our students are being formed by a culture of distraction and self-absorption, teachers must cultivate the capacity for attention and engagement. And teachers and institutions who embrace the various traditions of Christian higher education—united by the devotion to conversation, justice, and the search for truth—can bring a wealth of strategies and practices to the service of these pressing needs of our time.
In October 2013, the Lilly Fellows Program convened its National Conference at the University of Scranton. Representatives from members of the National Network of Church-Related Colleges and Universities gathered to consider the topic of “Faith and Academic Freedom in Civic Virtue.” Participants explored how faith-based schools can fulfill their missions through service to the world. Two lectures presented at Scranton are included in this issue. In “Inspiring Faith and Engaging Reality,” Fr. Mark Ravizza, SJ of Santa Clara University shows how by getting students out of the classroom we can help them develop both empathy for others and the imagination to see new possibilities in the world. In “Civic Virtue Starts at Home,” Patricia McGuire, President of Trinity Washington University, recounts how Trinity transformed itself by thinking of its mission as a mandate to serve the world that existed right outside the campus gates. A third essay included here was presented at the Administrator’s Workshop immediately preceding the conference. In “Purpose, Provender, and Promises,” Richard Ray of Hope College describes how faith-based universities offer something both distinctive and relevant to young people raised in this secular age.
These three essays all end by affirming that, above all, students need hope, and they show how Christian schools can cultivate this virtue. A Christian school’s mission is not to be a bulwark against change in the world; it is rather a mandate to embrace and serve the needs of that changing world. These schools can offer their students a freedom formed by faith and guided by hope, a hope that students will discover in the beauty of the world if they embrace it lovingly and attentively, a hope that will lead them to work for justice in that world. As they embrace this restless and distracted world, let us hope that at last their attention will come to rest on the faces of those they meet, and in them on the image of God, the source of hope unfailing.