Last weekend I found an anomalous little snippet in the Sunday Times Style magazine that resonated with me so strongly that I’m going to repeat it here word for word. (It’s unattributed as, although it appeared on @SallyBrampton’s Agony Aunt page, it’s not clear whether the adjoining snippets are also written by her.)
“In a new book, “Mastery” the American writer and strategist Robert Greene claims modern technology is encouraging us to make quick, rash judgements rather than develop lasting skills. The old fashioned idea of apprenticeship will get us furthest Greene says, citing the poet John Keats who, having taught himself about poetry by reading the greats, set himself the mammoth task of writing a 4,000 line poem (that became Endymion) in seven months. Greene calls Keats’s method “resistance practice” or taking the hardest option to make yourself tougher than your competitors.”
I’ve no idea why this snippet appeared in the Style section of The Sunday Times, but I’m glad I spotted it. I have already written a couple of posts on a similar theme:
- In Capturing attention in a distracting world I was investigating the true, current state of modern attention spans and what techniques / solutions are being proposed to attract this gnat-like attention
- In Social Media : Expanding or diminishing our lives? I side with “the anti-Christ of Silicon Valley” Andrew Keen and the key messages of his book The Cult of the Amateur when I say that “The ubiquitous frenzy to share our opinions, however ill-formed, and the daily trivia of our lives with anyone and everyone is resulting in a more fragmented, superficial and transparent society.”
So, even before reading the intriguing snippet about Robert Greene’s latest book, I’ve wondered about Western society’s (I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable to extend my musings on this subject to Asia or indeed the developing world) diminishing capacity for profundity, rigorous analysis or any kind of intellectual stamina.
In a bizarre instance of cognitive dissonance, I found myself hearing this same argument while watching episode 2 of series 4 of the BBC comedy Outnumbered. This episode featured an exchange between eldest son Jake and his English teacher father about his English homework assignment: an essay on the romantic poets:
Dad (reading Jake’s essay) “The romantic poets were a bunch of Emos…” Jake, the romantic poets were a major movement in literature. You can’t just diss them….
Jake (interrupting) I like daffodils. I appreciate them and everything. I just don’t need to go on about them the whole time. I can look at a daffodil and say “That’s a nice daffodil’ and move on with my life! Have you any idea how long the Ancient Mariner is?! Coleridge managed to get 327 verses out of some idiot who shot a bird….(muttering to himself) …why are all these poems about stupid birds…?
Dad OK, you can think it’s rubbish, but you need to have a coherent argument as to why …
Jake (interrupting) Yeah, so, this is my conclusion…
Dad(aghast) How can you write a conclusion when you’ve only written one sentence…?
Jake (irritated) I’m planning ahead…I’m planning ahead. So… (reading) “Wordsworth had a very bland life. The most interesting thing he did was sleep with his sister….(cue explosion from dad, not sure whether to be amused or horrified….)
When Outnumbered was first aired in 2008 much was made of the fact that large chunks of dialogue between all members of the cast, including 9 year old David Roche playing Ben and 7 year old Ramona Marquez playing Karen, were unscripted. This gives the dialogue a real sense of verisimilitude that still persists four years later. Jake’s views are superficial and dismissive, and they sound very true to what many 16 year olds might think of the romantic poets , which seems to reaffirm Greene’s and my own concerns about modern society.