So someone on that ever venerable website, Quora.com, asked me, and presumably others, “How do I become more observant?”
You know. As if people couldn’t figure that out by… observing.
Anyway, I played ball, and I repost the answer I gave here, given that recent events have left me astonished with the ignorance of many youths I have encountered who are so intellectually and culturally sheltered in this “If my generation didn’t do it, it didn’t happen” mentality that has pervaded American culture increasingly devastatingly since the 1960’s.
The question could be phrased in a much clearer way, but what the heck, I’ll bite.
“How do I become observant?”
By beginning to observe things.
Use your senses to take in the world around you, and then start flexing your brain in ways it’s not used to.
Read poetry. And not just “Edgar Allen Poe-try” like so many of my generation did. I’m talking whatever you can get your hands on– Whitman, Tennyson, Dickinson, Byron, Shelley, it doesn’t matter (but they certainly help). And then don’t just read them; read them, analyze, and interpret them.
Listen to music you’d find unconventional for you– if you listen to rap, start hitting up Opera. If you listen to Pop/Rock, start listening to more classical takes on it (included: shameless plug for).
Read philosophy– whether you agree with the authors doesn’t matter. I read Nietzche, John Stuart Mill, David Hume, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, Confucius, and Immanuel Kant in high school, and I still go back and reread their works regularly to keep my own skills sharp. Argue with their work they way their students might have: find flaws in their arguments, make counter arguments, and then consider where their arguments might poke holes in your logic.
If I’ve given the impression that being observant is a lot of work, that’s because it is. You cannot just rest on your laurels and be handed an observant nature. It calls for near-constant training and practice of the mind, but if you can do it, you’ll be far better off than the sluggards and fools who prefer the easy way of doing things.
Maybe that last paragraph explains the difference. It’s hard work being intelligent, and the post-80’s generations seem to consider hard work anathema as a concept. Never have I seen nor heard of such incredible senses of enitlement as I have seen in my generation and those that have come after.
Kids at Job Corps, when I quote Lord Byron’s poetry go, “what is that, Shakespeare?”
Cue a disdainful glare that immediately tells them they’ve tripped a wire.
“Not… Shakespeare then?”
Face, meet palm. Palm, meet face. I can tell you’re going to be good friends, given your tight embrace.
I then proceed to query them on their literature history.
Shockingly, the last time many of them read something was high school, if even that recently, and that they have NO IDEA who any of these people were. One thought “Plato” was “Play-Dough” and went “I had so much fun with that as a kid!”
Small wonder then that Americans test so poorly.
Whenever I mention an author they DO recognize the name of (like Shakespeare), they say “Oh! I read [insert author here]…” and my eyes light up, and then they follow up immediately with “…in high school.”
Cue depressing impact of the harsh fist of reality hammering down on my head in 3… 2… 1…
Whenever you read something in high school, you are coerced into reading it. When you are coerced, you read simply to verb. Reading is an action, not an activity. Saying “I read X” and following “X” with “High School” utterly invalidates the meaning of the first half of the statement in most cases.
I had two WONDERFUL teachers in high school: Pamela Dupris and Robert Vandergriff Jr., and they were wonderful because they had an amazing way of taking their students and saying “put all that moderninity behind you for a moment, and just see the world the way these writers saw it. Feel what they felt. Read these words, and comprehend them as you comprehend your own.”
I owe so much of my current analytical thinking and appreciation of literature to these two people. Pamela would have us read the great philosophers, then we would sit in a circle, and stage our own class discussions based on the arguments that we had just read. Robert would have us read the great Romantic and Gothic Literature, and educate us about the authors, the world those authors lived in and how it informed the writing; how some would see suffering and write darkness, yet others would take that same pain and compose great beauty.
Furthermore, both of these teachers clearly loved what they were teaching, and I like to think that since they both were at least able to impart that same love to at least one student (me, if you can’t tell), they were successful in their charge.
If I ever meet them again, I will be giving them a huge hug.
As for anyone else, if you really have no clue who the author is when I quote poetry at you, I’ll just keep quoting more until you figure it out, because classical lit is the best high school class on Earth. (MASSIVE BIAS!)