Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn
by Cathy N. Davidson. Viking, 2011. 352 pages. $27.95.
As I was writing this review, Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, wrote about hiring practices in Silicon Valley, the most dynamic corner of our economy. “They are all looking for the same kind of people,” Friedman wrote—people with “the critical-thinking skills to do the valueadding jobs that technology can’t, but also people who can invent, adapt, and reinvent their jobs every day, in a market that changes faster than ever…not only doing the job today but also reinventing the job for tomorrow.”
Friedman nailed it. That is precisely the message of Now You See It, a timely and passionate manifesto by Cathy N. Davidson on how to cope in the Internet age. The Internet, she believes, is on par with the invention of writing and the printing press in its potential to transform how we deal with one another. Yet as this new era washes over us, our places of work, our schools, and, most critically, our minds are still shaped by the past century, the manufacturing era. It was a time of specialized skills and division of labor; of top-down hierarchy; of orderliness and time clocks.
“Everything about school and work in the twentieth century was designed to create and reinforce separate subjects, separate cultures, separate grades, separate functions, separate spaces for personal life, work, private life, public life,” Davidson writes. Now the PC “has reconnected the very things—personal life, social life, work life, and even sexual life—that we’d spent the last hundred years putting into neatly separated categories.”
Now You See It is an engaging tour of contemporary neurological theory of how our brains work—much more adaptively than you might suspect. A good metaphor, she writes, is the iPhone, with basic functions built in, plus innumerable apps added or deleted as needed to solve particular problems. The book is also a withering critique of today’s schools, which it says smother our kids in “tests and lesson plans designed for their great-great-grandparents.” And it is a look at some creative companies that already deploy the fluid, diverse project teams, often global in scope, that may well become tomorrow’s dominant business format.
To be sure, Davidson’s book is a benign tour, perhaps too benign at times. The Net is largely exonerated of charges that it has shrunk our attention spans, diminished our memories, robbed us of research skills, and incited our youngsters to violence. But Davidson is such a dazzling guide, so in command of her subject, that it’s hard not to fall in with her optimism.
Davidson’s central notion is “attention blindness,” or tunnel vision—the observation that the more intently we focus on X, the less we notice about everything else. That spotlight-like focus serves us poorly when we are blitzed by information from every direction. In this century, unlearning out-of-date attitudes may become as vital as learning new ones, she writes.
Davidson deplores rote education and grade standards applying to every child. She despises teaching to the test. She would abolish year-end exams in favor of having school kids collaborate on “practical, real-world” Web projects that draw on an entire year’s learning.
In an experimental Manhattan school designed around the principles of video games, Davidson found the same excitement she had known in the three-room rural Alberta schoolhouse where her mother-in-law taught. “The model of learning,” she proposes, “is probably as old as human history. It is the game.” The key is learning presented as “problems, puzzles, brain teasers, games, word problems, and intellectual obstacle courses.” School becomes a zestful collaboration to solve problems.
Indeed, with their social networking and video games, today’s youngsters are smarter at preparing themselves for tomorrow’s world than are today’s schools. Davidson would love to harness the enormous energy that enthralled youngsters willingly put into those video games and tap the unabashed learning rolled up in all that problem-solving.
A brilliant academic innovator, Davidson spent eight years as Duke’s (and the nation’s) first vice provost for interdisciplinary studies. She helps the MacArthur Foundation spend $2 million a year to spur innovations in digital media in classroom instruction. She recently chaired the university’s Digital Futures Task Force and teaches a far-seeing course called This Is Your Brain on the Internet. Google the course title to sample its daunting syllabus.
Davidson is dyslexic, though she didn’t know that until she was in her mid-twenties and had already earned a Ph.D. As a youngster, she was written off as obstinate. She scored abysmally on standardized tests, despite outstanding talent in math and writing. Surviving that miserable experience left her with a strength of mind and an admirable soft spot for supposed misfits, like the sullen teenager with the green hair who was deemed “severely learning disabled” in middle school.
Yet the girl came alive, and excelled, when the class turned to art and her drawings. (And Davidson’s hair, at that age, was purple.)
Being a Pilgrim: Art and Ritual on the Medieval Routes to Santiago
by Kathleen Henderson Ashley ’69, A.M. ’70, Ph.D. ’73 and Marilyn Deegan. Lund Humphries, 2009. 264 pages. $60.
For more than 1,000 years, people have traveled to the burial site of the apostle St. James the Great. Author Ashley, an English professor at the University of Southern Maine, and photographer Deegan capture the experience of the medieval pilgrim through an examination of art, historical, and social contexts as well as themes related to pilgrimage such as music, legend, and ritual.
Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners: The Definitive Guide to LGBT Life
by Steven Petrow ’78 with Sally Chew. Workman Publishing, 2011. 448 pages. $17.95.
Petrow’s comprehensive guide provides advice on a range of issues related to the LGBT population, from social circumstances (introducing one’s partner, coming out at work) to milestones (adopting a child, weddings, and funerals). Each chapter also includes “Straight Talk,” crafted from questions Petrow received from straight people about LGBT situations. Petrow, former president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, is a nationally syndicated columnist for The Huffington Post and has written for The Advocate, The Los Angeles Times, Salon, and The Daily Beast.
Wild North Carolina: Discovering the Wonders of Our State’s Natural Communities
by David Blevins and Michael P. Schafale M.S. ’83. The University of North Carolina Press, 2011. 184 pages. $30.
Featuring 118 color photographs and text that explores the natural patterns of the landscape, Wild North Carolina celebrates the state’s diverse natural communities— from dunes and marshes to high mountain crags, through forests, swamps, savannas, ponds, pocosins, and flatrocks— while considering the challenges of conservation. Schafale has been a community ecologist for the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program for twenty-seven years, focusing on the classification, tracking, conservation, and stewardship of natural communities.
Private Bodies, Public Texts: Race, Gender and a Cultural Bioethics
by Karla FC Holloway. Duke University Press, 2011. 248 pages. $22.95.
Holloway examines instances where medical issues and information that would usually be seen as intimate, private matters are forced into the public sphere. Holloway, a James B. Duke Professor of English, discusses the spectacle of the Terri Schiavo rightto- die case, medical researchers’ use of Henrietta Lacks’ cell line without her or her family’s knowledge or permission, the Tuskegee syphilis study, and ethical dilemmas that confronted physicians, patients, and families during Hurricane Katrina. Private Bodies, Public Texts calls for a cultural bioethics that attends to the historical and social factors that render some populations more vulnerable than others in medical and legal contexts.
Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement
by Tomiko Brown-Nagin A.M. ’93, Ph.D. ’02. Oxford University Press, 2011. $34.95.
Spanning the 1940s through the 1970s, this sweeping history of the civil rights movement in Atlanta explores the complex interplay between the local and national, between elites and grassroots activists, between middle-class and working-class African Americans, and between lawyers and communities. Brown-Nagin is the Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of law and professor of history at the University of Virginia.
The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL
by Eric Greitens ’96. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 320 pages. $27.
A Rhodes Scholar, Navy SEAL, international humanitarian worker, and founder of a veterans’ aid organization, Greitens explores the complexities of being a humanitarian-warrior. Drawing on his humanitarian experiences in Bosnia, Rwanda, Gaza, and Calcutta, as well as his Navy SEAL training and deployments in Kenya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Greitens argues that “peace is more than the absence of war, and that a good life entails more than the absence of suffering.” At Duke, Greitens was an Angier B. Duke Scholar and studied ethics, philosophy, and public policy. He is a senior fellow at the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri and teaches in the M.B.A. program at the Olin School of Business at Washington University.