Your Children can be Engrossed in their Homework

When watching television, it has been my experience that it takes very little time before I have lost all awareness of the edge of the television screen or even of the screen on which the image is produced. For me, then, there is only the image and its sounds which seem as immediate to me as the room in which I sit. My experience, I suppose, is of having fallen into the image which I inhabit in the form of invisible spectator or voyeur: an state of consciousness absorbed into and with the televised image. In the meantime, all that surrounds the image fades into a kind of background outside of consciousness but not beyond conscious reach. I may recall it at a second’s notice and, if need be, it may recall me.

I know that my experience of television is a common one: the power of television to engross viewers is well documented. Neither is the experience of being engrossed special to television viewing. Indeed, we may become engrossed in almost any activity. Unlike watching television, which is peculiarly seductive, however, many activities require that we get used to attending to them before they can captivate us as television does.

At one point in the 1950s, the suggestion was bandied about that European concert halls should be darkened in the manner of theatres, lest audience movements should distract listeners from the music. In reaction, famed musicologist and philosopher, Theodor Adorno, sniffed that the audience should be so engrossed in the music that any surrounding activity must be beyond their notice. I think Adorno has a point, one that is pertinent to our children’s education. Notice what Adorno’s response implies: that audiences “should” be engrossed in the music suggests a duty on their part to give the whole of their consciousness to the music. This duty derives from music’s having a value that merits our full attention; also from our being able to grasp its value when we allow it to capture our attention fully.

I’m going to assume, at this point, as an uncontroversial given that there are educational subjects and activities which have the kind of value Adorno attributes to the music of the concert hall. As such, these activities can legitimately require as a duty that we be engrossed in them; that when we attend to them they become the sole objects of our consciousness to the extent that the rest of our surroundings retreat into an unconscious background. A worthy educational goal some might say, maybe even a necessary one, but how are we to achieve it?

I am reminded of a song by the satirist, Spike Jones, about two yokels who wander by mistake into a performance of the opera, Pagliacci. The yokels’ lack of familiarity with opera or anything like it ensures that their listening to Pagliacci will be a cause of discomfort impossible for them to ignore: they sing, “When we listen to PAL-YAT-CHEE we get itchy an’ scratchy.” Engrossment in Pagliacci is impossible for the yokels and they attend the performance only under compulsion: “We hate to go back but we can’t git our dough back. There ain’t no use complainin’ ’cause outside it’s a-rainin’.” Ultimately, becoming engrossed in educational activities is something for which students must be trained, and training begins most easily at home.

Elsewhere I have advocated for students doing their homework at the kitchen or dining room table amidst the comings and goings of family members engaged in household activities. The rationale I gave was that familiar household noises by family members serve to counter the isolation which otherwise accompanies individual study. Being familiar they act as company for the student as a member of a household where everyone operates in a common space.

But the noises family members and their activities serve another pedagogical purpose, as well; one that is in aid of the student’s becoming engrossed in their homework. Being familiar, they serve as the comfortable background capable of supporting the student’s attention to difficult material even as they retreat beyond the student’s conscious notice. Like the television, the student’s domestic background becomes the transparency through which they gain entry into their subject of study.

If the sound of domestic family life which supports the student’s engrossment in their studies comforts the student by virtue of its familiarity, it does so, as well, by virtue of being a mild stimulant. The need for this type of background stimulus as a necessary condition of deep concentration is what drives would be authors to write in coffee shops. Compared to the coffee shop, the empty apartment is a sensory deprivation chamber: one has to move around in it to distract themselves from a restlessness born of a profound sense of emptiness. Theirs is the restless activity of a person seeking reassurance about their own existence. In the coffee shop, by contrast, the sense of one’s existence is guaranteed by the stimulating bustle around them. Assured of their own existence, the author/student is freed to lose themselves in their writing/studies.

As well, sitting, the necessary posture for engrossed study, takes training. This is why students are required to do so much of it at school. Montessori was the first educational theorist to realize the importance of training students to sit well. The goal is for sitting to become so familiar as to be the comfortable position from which the student can give their full attention to their studies. With time, sitting will always become tiring, it is true. With training, however, sitting should become only so tiring that it stimulates in the student a sense of self capable of enjoying time well spent. For example, I once attended a lengthy concert of Brahms impromptus, during which I became aware that my bodily feeling of being seated had become indistinguishable from my feeling of pleasure at being in the presence of music making so great that I did not want it to stop. In effect, my sitting did not interrupt my being engrossed in the music so much as become an appreciative condition of that engrossment.

The value to students of doing homework in the midst of family life, as with individual study time in the midst of a crowded classroom, is that it teaches them to become engrossed in study on the understanding that learning and appreciating the objects of study requires that students become engrossed in them. True engrossing takes place in and against, and not divorced from, the background of familiar human doings. That is, if students cannot concentrate except when isolated from background distraction, then they have not learned how to respond to the demands of their studies as any competent scholar must.

And so, I end with this warning. Studying with earphones is NOT appropriate to scholarly concentration because it takes what I call the “scuba diving” approach to study. The assumption of the scuba diving approach is that, just as the scuba diver needs a breathing apparatus to survive in an aquatic environment alien to the needs of human respiration, so does the student need earphones as a “coping apparatus,” lest study be impossible in a world whose bustle renders it alien to human requirements for concentration. In reality, the world is not toxic to study. Rather, it is study’s natural environment. But even natural environments require training if we are to abide in them. It is, therefore, a primary activity of education to prepare our children to inhabit the world as the environment which breathes life into their studies. The alternative is that our children will find their own intellectual atmosphere toxic, and the human condition one from which they have been alienated.

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