Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Blessed Are the Mono-Taskers, for They Shall See God

I spend a lot of time mono-tasking here.

My seminary class is called Spiritual Formation. My main assignment: set apart one hour a day, five days a week, to pray and listen to God, keeping a record of the voice and activity of God in a spiritual journal. 

Needed: listening skills; ability to meditate and ponder; desire and focus to allow God to go deep (see, e.g., Proverbs 20:5).

I also teach two philosophy courses at Monroe County Community College: Intro to Logic, and Philosophy of Religion. Needed to learn philosophy and think philosophically: the ability to think; ability to focus and stay on task; desire and ability to go deep; ability to ponder and meditate.

Both spiritual formation and philosophy are slow cookers, not microwaves. Both, if attended to, produce much lasting fruit in a person's life. Oak trees grow out of the soil of pondering deep and important life-themes.

Deep, lasting relationships are slow-cookers, too. This includes the God-relationship. Knowing God means way more than theoretical knowledge. As an analogy, one learns to ride a bike by actually riding it, not by reading books on it or spending a few hurried minutes with it here and there.

Sadly, spiritual formation and philosophizing are waning in our "wired" culture. An entire generation has formed that is, now, neurally incapable of deep thought. To understand this begin by reading Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. See the various Shallows-posts I've already made here. See also Howard Gardner's The App Generation, where the distinction is made between "app-dependency" (bad) and "app-enablement" (good).

Or check out this nytimes essay "Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction." The bullets are:
  • “A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification,” says a bright 17-year-old student. Professors take note. This student cannot attend to you for long. He's not being rebellious if he's not paying attention; neurally he cannot attend.

  • "Developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention." In my spiritual formation classes, it is beyond-hard for more and more seminary students to pray, listen to God, and meditate on God-things for even a few minutes.
  • “Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”
  • Don't simply blame the kids for this. We've programmed them to Mc-think. "Even as some parents and educators express unease about students’ digital diets, they are intensifying efforts to use technology in the classroom, seeing it as a way to connect with students and give them essential skills. Across the country, schools are equipping themselves with computers, Internet access and mobile devices so they can teach on the students’ technological territory."
  • I ban texting and laptops in my classes. I put this in my syllabus next to a picture of a skull-and-crossbones. Intellectual death to the multitaskers!  Because, e.g., "unchecked use of digital devices can create a culture in which students are addicted to the virtual world and lost in it." 
  • Today's kids are "caught between two worlds, one that is virtual and one with real-life demands."
  • "Research also shows that students often juggle homework and entertainment. The Kaiser Family Foundation found earlier this year that half of students from 8 to 18 are using the Internet, watching TV or using some other form of media either “most” (31 percent) or “some” (25 percent) of the time that they are doing homework." So what's so bad about this? It's only that you can't learn doing this, that's all. Yes, you can learn to multitask. "But this proficiency comes at a cost: [one student] blames multitasking for the three B’s on her recent progress report."  
  • "Sean, a senior, concedes that video games take a physical toll: “I haven’t done exercise since my sophomore year. But that doesn’t seem like a big deal. I still look the same.”"
  • "Some neuroscientists have been studying people like [these students]. They have begun to understand what happens to the brains of young people who are constantly online and in touch."
  • "The heavy use of devices... worries Daniel Anderson, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who is known for research showing that children are not as harmed by TV viewing as some researchers have suggested. Multitasking using ubiquitous, interactive and highly stimulating computers and phones, Professor Anderson says, appears to have a more powerful effect than TV. Like Dr. [Michael] Rich [Harvard Medical School], he says he believes that young, developing brains are becoming habituated to distraction and to switching tasks, not to focus. “If you’ve grown up processing multiple media, that’s exactly the mode you’re going to fall into when put in that environment — you develop a need for that stimulation,” he said."
  • "Students now lack the attention span to read the assignments on their own."
Ability to focus...  to deep-think... going...  going... gone... and with it the God-relationship going... going... gone...  at least in terms of the wired generation.

What am I doing about this? In my philosophy classes I assign little or no reading homework, since I assume 95% of my students won't read it anyway. I ban texting and laptops in class. In my lectures I look for dialogue and interaction, exposing students to the wonder of thinking. I give seminarians prayer assignments (not books to read on prayer, which may or may not be read anyway), and require that spiritual journals be kept. In some cases, they are met by God. A new-yet-ancient habit is formed, new neural connections are made, the joy and value of heart-stillness and heart purity are learned, and it's like life begins.

Remember that Kierkegaard told us Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. To "will one thing." To focus on, attend to, be captivated by, be still before, one thing. What is the benefit of that? 

Blessed are the mono-taskers, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)

(For more see The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life, by Timothy Jennings, M.D.)