Students sometimes ask in class “Why do we have to study this?” We can ask ourselves the same question: Why learn proofs in geometry, the rules of algebra, or the detailed history of the 1840’s? The theorems, rules and facts seem to be unnecessary when everything can be plugged into a calculator or searched for online. Why do we need to be in school?
The answer is that everyone, but especially young minds, need training in attentiveness. By learning this rule of algebra or this historical fact, you are training yourself to be more attentive. You are learning how to silence the noise and chatter in your head so that you can experience the world around you as it really is.
Education is about fostering a greater attentiveness, a greater perception of the world. A perception of the world around us and the world as it has been: in history, literature, art, and other ways. It is about discovering the existence of things that are not a part of you and do not at all depend on you. It is an openness to the being of things. We can marvel at the changing of the seasons, the origins of the cosmos, or the complexities of amphibious lifeforms. There are many ways to practice attentiveness, but I would like to highlight a few that we foster here at Sparhawk.
The first way is being attentive in the classroom. When reading or hearing a story, students can be more or less attentive: to the plot, to the characters, and to what deeper life lessons can be gleaned from it. For example, our fourth graders can be attentive to the choices made by characters in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In Rumpelstiltskin, why does the miller’s daughter offer her firstborn son to Rumpelstiltskin? Our eighth graders read The Return of the King. If they are attentive, they will notice the different ways in which the Palantir affects its users. Denethor ends up despairing, whereas Saruman becomes thoroughly corrupted and joins forces with evil. What causes such different outcomes, even though they are using the same type of device?
A second opportunity to practice being attentive is found in the rich natural world on the Sparhawk grounds. The students enjoy being in the woods and going on nature walks. They might discover a deer carcass or find other remains in the woods. Then there is the challenge of using multiple senses to identify a bird or tree: sound, sight, touch, and even smell (to recognize the skunk cabbage on the property). Can the student be attentive enough to observe these things, and more attentive still to faithfully record them in his notebook?
We also try to foster attentiveness to people. It starts with the externals of dress and courtesy. These lead to a more attentive attitude to how people are doing. Our teachers can ask themselves why is it that this student who is normally so well dressed looks like he just got run over? Is it because he was playing football during recess or because he’s having a bad day? Only by being attentive can we try to really understand the boys and what they are going through. This fostering of attentiveness has a special place at Sparhawk when our teachers mentor students. The one-on-one conversation that happens while throwing a football or walking around the green leads to a deeper awareness. The teacher discovers something new about the trials of a growing boy, and the student learns more about himself and his possibilities for growth. Each learns to listen: to be more attentive to the other.
All these forms of attentiveness are good, and they can also serve a higher purpose. It is by quieting the mind that the human soul then becomes capable of something greater. When one wonders at the marvelous details found in created nature, he or she can be led to the Divine Creator. The philosopher Simone Weil wrote that “the Key to a Christian conception of studies is the realisation that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God. The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.”
Our students have the chance to practice this attentiveness every day: by making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, attending Mass, or offering that silent prayer in the midst of recess on a beautiful day.