Delight Springs

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The art of looking

“You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” And that's why you need a liberal education. You don't just want a job and a paycheck, you want a meaningful and rewarding vocation. You want a good life.

Andrew Delbanco was quoting a colleague in his book about what college was, is, and should be. I'm stealing the line, it'll be useful in recruiting travelers for our Study Abroad course in Oxford and environs.

We had another very encouraging meeting about that yesterday with representatives of ISA, who say they'll be happy to help us build and customize our course. We're on track to go over and scout locations next summer, before rolling out the course in the summer following. 

It's going to be a walking course, in the noblest peripatetic tradition. And so it was more than fitting that my colleague and I had a productive brainstorming conversation about how we'll do it as we ambled back from the Student Center to our building on the other edge of campus. 

We're thinking the way to go, at least part of the time on the ground in Britain, will be to break ourselves and our students into a pair of smaller herds. We'll walk-and-talk independently, in the process "customizing" our general theme (how British "roots" influenced the development of American philosophy, and reciprocally how American ideas have subsequently "branched" into the Anglo/European environment) in our own ways.

By the way, English majors and other humanities types: we're not taking a narrow path here. The literary, cultural, and historical (as well as philosophic and scientific) "milieus" will matter deeply, in our course. We'll plan an outing to William James's "younger, shallower" brother Henry's home in Rye (Sussex), we'll look for the trail of Dickens (who famously perambulated in London after midnight)...

 In short, we'll take to heart William's familiar observation that our experience is what we agree to attend to. We'll attend to as much as we can, and will have a richer learning experience for it. We'll really look at, and into, and behind, our surroundings.

That's the message in a recently celebrated book called The Art of Looking, by Alexandra Horowitz.
Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you... A better way of thinking about attention is to consider the problems that evolution might have designed “attention” to solve. The first problem emerges from the nature of the world. The world is wildly distracting. It is full of brightly colored things, large things casting shadows, quickly moving things, approaching things, loud things, irregular things, smelly things.
Right. Henry James said his challenge as a writer was to be one on whom nothing was lost. That's impossible, but it's a worthy aspiration for our course and our trip. And our lives.

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