I have the privilege of teaching bright, courteous young people. I am told that they come to our fairly selective university with generally high SAT scores, and I have no reason to doubt this. But my favorable opinion of my students constantly leaves me all the more surprised at how little many of them know outside of today’s current events and how unfamiliar they are with ideas beyond the various versions of present-day conventional wisdom. They suffer from a condition that the anthropologist Robin Fox has labeled “chronomyopia,” a narrow focus on the immediately present.
Ironically, our information-rich society may be a large part of the reason for this intellectual short-sightedness. Overloaded by broad and shallow electronic communication, they have no attention left for thinking that goes beyond the present. In the decidedly low communication environment of Walden, with his books, thoughts, and visitors, Henry David Thoreau wrote “[w]e are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." I’m not sure whether that was true, but I do think that partially disengaging from the networks of his own day enabled Thoreau to reach the depths that produced his masterpiece. Most of the information that flows through the complex networks of our own day does have nothing important to communicate, and it often completely absorbs young people.
Although higher education may not be the source of the near-sightedness, it exacerbates the problem. Historian of education and policy analyst Diane Ravitch, in her 2000 book Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, lamented the displacement of academic education in schools by programs such as “life adjustment” education and education for “social efficiency,” aimed at narrowing teaching and learning to topics immediately relevant in the daily lives of students. In my view, as college has become the new high school, various forms of education for immediate social purposes have moved to the center of post-secondary schooling.
Education for civic engagement, a major initiative at my university, is a part of the narrowing of the curriculum. The job of educators, according to this pedagogical ideology, is to train students to be “engaged citizens” and to direct learning toward solving social problems. If we preach engagement, of course, we exclude Thoreau’s retreat from the range of possibilities and narrow the thinking of our students by removing from consideration the question of whether it is ever acceptable for them to refuse to throw themselves into the campaigns and crusades of the moment. Since “social problems” don’t exist as facts, but must be defined by someone, universities limit the students’ vision by defining what the students should see as problematic. The goal is to engage students in officially sanctioned service to the here and now, institutionalizing chronomyopia.
I do think that higher education should have something to do with citizenship. But our universities can best prepare students for citizenship in a representative republic by expanding the vision of the students and by encouraging them to make their own decisions about whether and how they will engage with their society. Our students need to learn much more about the history of their own political society and of the world. They need to have access to their cultural heritage as Americans and as human beings. Combining this kind of far-sighted citizenship education with the skills and knowledge for making a living is a big task. Instead of taking up this effort, we are directing our students’ eyes on our immediate and preferred social goals.