Simone Weil's Enchanting "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies"
Imagine a modern educational tract, or possibly a speech on the ends of education, beginning with the assertion that the goal of all learning is to love God. Most of us cannot imagine such an assertion. Within the deeply secularized institution of modern American learning, there is really less hostility toward God and more of common place apathy.
For those of us that cannot imagine a view of education with God at the beginning, middle, and end, we have to look to a different time. Simone Weil (1909-1943) offers such a view of education.
Among the many redeeming qualities of this brief piece is the main theme that is present throughout the entire essay--Weil's contention that we must develop the "faculty of attention." She wonderfully asserts that if we love God, we should learn to like all subjects. In other words, our love for God will prompt our love for all of reality and all learning of reality.
For Simone Weil, prayer and studies are intertwined as they relate to the theme of attention. Weil believes there is great value in exercising attention. It appears to me that by the term attention, Weil means consideration or deep awareness. She says, "Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted."
One great point in this piece by Weil is, "quite apart from explicit 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."
As with other writers in the Great Tradition that address the sense of authentic learning, a matter of virtue is of the utmost importance. For Weil, "a far more precious treasure than all academic progress" is the virtue of humility.
There are a number of insights within this brief work that are simply striking. One thing Weil says that is rare among thinkers, even within the field of Classical Christian education, is the notion of joy as it relates to learning. "The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.
Where it is lacking is that there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade." One could easily add that the atmosphere of joy would certainly be more conducive to not only the learning of intellectual matters, but the learning of spiritual matters.
In addition to defining attention within the essay, Weil actually gives advice for what one should do as an instructor when attention is waning. She also encourages schools to provide unique exercises of a thought nature that can be, and should be, seen within a sacramental sense. Weil says, we have a duty toward children to make this method of devotion to attention a top priority. Related to this is the thought, "Happy then are those who pass their adolescence and youth in developing this power of attention…Whoever goes through years of study without developing this attention within himself has lost a great treasure."
I will conclude this summary of Weil's essay with what is an appropriate summary of this entire writing, "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." When was the last time you heard anyone, including academic leaders, speak of learning in such lofty terms?