Simone Weil and the Condition of Schooling Today

simone_weil.jpg“We can only lean on what offers resistance.” So writes the historian Oswald Spengler in The Hour of Decision (1934). Seven years later, Simone Weil incorporated this principle in her declaration that the key to academic studies is an undivided focus on each particular subject at hand, with no concessions to the student’s aptitude or preferences.

Weil’s term for this effort of mind is attention, which she refers to no less than thirty-eight times in her brief but remarkable essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.”  Comparable repetitions fill the pages of our education establishment, with the crucial difference that it traffics in catch-words that are deployed with all the insistence of a propaganda campaign, such as “self-esteem,” “progressive,” and “multicultural,” whereas “attention” speaks to the actual process of intellectual discipline and throughout Weil’s essay remains a real tool of perception.

No such grounding in the life of the mind is possible in what Heather Mac Donald calls academic “Theorese,” which serves to inhibit thought through a smokescreen of abstractions and stilted, sterile prose, behind which the big guns of “Theory” take aim at time-tested principles of knowledge and learning and seek to deconstruct, “problematize,” or otherwise subvert standard norms of thought and education. For three decades or more, the very concepts of objectivity, correctness, coherence, and logic have been the object of “radical critique,” particularly in the field of college composition, which has been targeted for special abuse, since it is the gateway to the entire curriculum, science included.

In an unconscious self-parody that mirrors the stereotype of the hysterical female, the French feminist Luce Irigaray pulled out all the stops in 1974 and called on women to destroy "the logical grid of the reader-writer" and "drive him out of his mind. . . . Turn everything upside down, inside out, back to front. . . . Overthrow syntax by suspending its eternally teleological order," a statement that defies its own demand, or it could not have been written or even conceived. As with all programs for the radical transformation of consciousness and social relationships, Irigaray's attacks against "phallocratic" thinking are not meant to be reflected upon but swallowed whole and en masse, first by other theorists and from there filtered down to opinion makers, schools, and students themselves. The origins of this process are rooted in the history of Marxist ideology; and, as paradoxical as it may seem, all the complex-sounding arguments, pronouncements, and abstractions of Theorese are governed by a few simplistic notions about western "false consciousness" (variously defined as "patriarchal," "hegemonic," or "logocentric" thought) and can therefore be assimilated with relative ease by anyone for whom the undermining of intellectual, cultural, or religious authority has irresistible appeal.

By contrast, there is not a trace of collectivist thinking in Weil's essay, nor, so far as I can recall, in any of her writings, even when she was still under the influence of Marx; and her singularity is such that every argument that she develops bears the stamp of an independent mind. In his book-length study of Weil, George Orwell's intimate friend Richard Rees speaks to this aspect not only of her thought but also character and cites T. S. Eliot's observation that she is "more truly a lover of order and hierarchy than most of those who call themselves Conservative, and more truly a lover of people than most of those who call themselves Socialist."

In view of current teacher-talk, it is worth noting that Weil's intellectual independence owes nothing to "self-esteem" and in fact emerged from "one of those fits of bottomless despair that come with adolescence," in her case despair over what she believed was "the mediocrity of my natural faculties." As she wrote to her spiritual confidant Father Perrin, it was not that she cared about tangible success but that she feared she could never have access to the world of "the truly great . . . wherein truth abides." Following "months of inward darkness," she continues, "I suddenly had the everlasting conviction that any human being, even though practically devoid of natural faculties, can penetrate to the kingdom of truth . . . if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention upon its attainment." She concludes this portion of her letter by remarking that "the same conviction led me to persevere for ten years in an effort of concentrated attention that was practically unsupported by any hope of results." Hence the authority with which she writes that lack of aptitude is "almost an advantage" in developing one's powers of attention, for which "Faith is the indispensable condition."

In yet another of the many divides between "School Studies" and current slogans and practices, what Rees means by Weil's ability to think for herself has nothing to do with what passes today for "critical thinking," since her thoughts are fresh and incisive to the same degree as the "concentrated attention" she devoted to every subject of a once traditional education, together with her later studies in Christianity, Buddhism, and the folklore of indigenous peoples, on which she draws in a way that is inconceivable in a "multicultural" curriculum:

Quite apart from explicitly religious belief, every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit. An Eskimo story explains the origin of light as follows: 'In the eternal darkness, the crow, unable to find any food, longed for light, and the earth was illumined.' If there is a real desire, if the thing desired is really light, the desire for light produces it. There is a real desire when there is an effort of attention. Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.

Although the wish to perform a task correctly "is indispensable in any true effort," what Weil means by an "effort of attention" is concentrated absorption in a subject and is neither "a kind of muscular effort" nor a striving "to carry out a search." The closest English equivalent I know is Eliot's term "intelligent saturation," which for Weil "consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object." In her notebooks, Weil remarks that the methods of "the masters of Zen tend to carry the attention to the highest degree of intensity," but she speaks closer to home when she writes in "School Studies" that "There is a way of giving our attention to the data of a problem in geometry without trying to find the solution" and "a way of writing, when we are writing, for the right word to come of itself at the end of our pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words." More valuable yet is "the virtue of humility . . . a far more precious treasure than all academic progress," which we develop by fixing "the gaze, not only of our eyes but of our souls, upon a school exercise in which we have failed through sheer stupidity," whereupon "a sense of our mediocrity is borne in upon us with irresistible evidence. No knowledge is more to be desired." In today's schooling, on the other hand, no knowledge is more to be shunned.

Years ago, when I taught Weil's essay in a number of advanced composition courses, I was struck by the fact that none of my community college students remarked on the declaration with which it begins, "The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention." What surprised me even more was that they nevertheless understood the direction of her thought and said that they had never heard a teacher speak to them with such authority and challenging ideals. This admission, however, did nothing to modify their objection to her rigorous demands, in particular her statement that "Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks." Although a few suggested that it was still worth aiming high, most did not believe that they could live up to her standards, which they said were either impractical or too difficult to achieve. They also could not see themselves giving up all that they owned for the sake of an education, yet one or two sensed a certain truth in her closing line: "Academic work is one of those fields containing a pearl so precious that it is worthwhile to sell all our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it."

In the ongoing discussion several days later, one student who had been silently attentive till then gave us pause when she suddenly spoke up and began to recount a moment of learning that she experienced the day before on a late registration line for one of her classes. She stood there, she said, feeling angry and inadequate, as usual, about having to cope with school bureaucracies and their rules and regulations, when all at once she remembered Weil's words about lack of aptitude being "almost an advantage" in the struggle for awareness, and she realized that her problem was not with registration but with how she perceived it and how she diminished herself in the face of an onerous task. She then addressed the class full square with an admonition never to say that a course or an academic chore is hateful, boring, useless, or too hard to handle.

We had spent no more than fifty minutes on the essay two days before, yet I am convinced that the passage she remembered is still doing its work in her, even if she has forgotten it, for I believe with Weil that "Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted." In a related thought, she writes in her notebooks, "The exponential growth of a particle of pure good, once such a particle has entered the soul – that is what is indicated in the parable of the grain of mustard seed" (Luke 13:18-19). 

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Steve Kogan

Steve Kogan was a Professor of English for over thirty years at Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY and has written for Academic Questions, The Brussels Journal, and Literary Imagination, among other journals and blogs.

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