From the Editor

John Turner

I went last night to see Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth. It was very effective and not at all boring, as some people have said. But that such a charge could be brought against it is a truth even more inconvenient than the fact of global warming caused by human agency. The saddest truth of all we have to face is that democracy, which is the best form of government we can think of, isn't very effective under current conditions. Given the current state of education, a majority of the people are easily manipulatable and can't concentrate their minds enough to know what governments are doing.

What we can do about that, I'm not sure.

I had an interesting e-mail exchange this week with Erik Reichle of the University of Pittsburgh. I had read a news article about experiments he is doing to find out why students' minds wander or "zone out" when they are reading. And the reading he asks his subjects to do is from Tolstoy's War and Peace because, according to the article "Reichle wanted some boring reading -- better for zoning out." Naturally, that got my dander up, so I posted an item which said:

Psychological researchers from the Universities of Pittsburgh and British Columbia
were paid $691,000 by the federal government to find out why people often don't pay
attention to the text when they sit and run their eyes over a page. The psychologists
carried out their research by asking subjects to read the first five chapters of War and
Peace. Tolstoy's novel was chosen because Professor Erik Reichle of Pittsburgh wanted
some "boring reading -- better for zoning out." Think of it: we're spending public money
so that a guy who doesn't know what reading is can tell us why people don't do it. For him,
the text of one of the world's finest novels is boring. It would be interesting to know what
Mr. Reichle thinks is interesting -- perhaps the lucubration of minds such as his own?
I wonder if it occurred to him that when people don't attend to a page they're pretending
to read it could be because their previous education has not suggested to them what the
mind might do with the information it absorbs. Why take something in if there's nothing
to be done with it? From the point of view of a person who doesn't know what reading is,
failure to weary the mind with attention is perfectly rational.

I also sent it to Mr. Reichle.

Here's what he sent in reply.

If you read the news article more carefully, then you'll see that you're making an incorrect inference: I'm not saying that I find Tolstoy's "War and "Peace" to be boring, but that average college students do.  And they do.  I ask them afterwards, and the vast majority of them say that it is extremely boring.

Also, your implication that the grant money is being wasted simply reflects the fact that you don't understand what's actually being done. If you're really interested in learning more about my research, please visit my web page:  There, you can download published articles that I've written on my work.

And then, I answered him.

Thanks for responding. The account I read did say you selected War and Peace because it is boring, not that students think it's boring. So, I apologize for my slap at you.  Still, I think my main point stands. The key issue with respect to wandering minds is how readers approach the text. If they do it with the sense that there's something to be got from it, then they can remain engaged. But if they take up a text with no concept that there's anything to be gained, then, naturally, they don't pay attention to it. Why should they? Ask yourself this question: is there any text of substance that your subjects would not have found boring? If you had substituted Jane Austen, or Samuel Johnson, or Friederich Nietzsche, or Nathaniel Hawthorne for Tolstoy, would you not have got exactly the same answer? So, the question is not why students don't pay attention. The answer is obvious and needs no research. The serious question is why students are incapacitated with respect to the act of reading. If you could help us find that out, then the tax dollars would be well spent and you would have my applause.

I haven't heard from Mr. Reichle again. Another critic of his work quoted in the article said that it doesn't take account of his subjects having no incentive to pay attention "as they would in school." That may be true, but I doubt it's the main reason why the students' minds wandered during the experiment. I doubt very much there is any external motive that could concentrate attention unless the act of reading itself was experienced as something valuable. And many, perhaps most, college students are incapable of perceiving it that way.

The problem of education is identical to the problem of democracy. When the people can't pay attention, then schooling is of small benefit and democracy won't produce good government.

I would like to explore that problem in this publication, so if any of you have thoughts about it, please send them to us.

Ernest Cassara's computer went awry just as he was about to send this week's "Harvard Square Observer." I hope it will soon be repaired so that we can have his observation for you next week.

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