Peer Review, Winter 2001

Vol. 3, 
No. 2
Peer Review

Attention Must Be Paid

The nation's future depends upon the education of its workforce. That's the message we hear from every pundit, politician, and college president. Our young people need lifelong learning, not basic skills; they need college degrees, not high school diplomas; they need thinking caps, not hard hats. It's knowledge that fuels our post-industrial, high-tech, global marketplace. In short, and to update a famous quip from the last millennium, it's the information economy, stupid.

But that's a misleading cliché, argues the UCLA English professor Richard Lanham in a series of recent articles and conference presentations (available on line at Though hardly a numbers man himself -- his scholarly work has focused on Renaissance literature, rhetorical theory, and hypertext -- Lanham recalls enough of his old Econ 101 textbook to know that value derives from the scarcity of resources. And if there's a scarce resource today, it is most definitely not information. In fact, we can't avoid the stuff; It swirls around us from the moment we turn on the morning news until we log out of our chat rooms and call it a night. We now have radios in our showers, email on our Palm Pilots, and telephones in flight. We have on-line access to everything from the complete works of Shakespeare to the private thoughts of Britney Spears.

Information isn't the currency that really drives the new economy, says Lanham -- it's our attention that's become most rare and valuable. Of course we have to be able to decode, analyze, and convey information, but the real question is this: How do we allocate our limited capacity to attend to that information? As we rush madly through our daily routines, what makes us stop and take notice? Which Web sites induce us to linger?

Ironically enough, Lanham has struggled for several years to get the academic community to attend to what he calls "the economics of attention." Perhaps the greater irony, though, is that I have space only to hint at his full argument: Lanham would anchor the undergraduate curriculum in the traditions of classical rhetoric. He argues that every student should be taught the arts of eloquence, the means by which one captures, holds, and directs the attention of others-and understands how one's own attention has been captured, as well.

By contrast, the conventional wisdom gives priority to the management of information, asking students to meet the demands placed on them by the new economy. Typically, it's argued that today's workers must be able to quickly interpret texts, to write clearly, to analyze statistical data, to communicate effectively in various contexts, and so forth.

The distance between these two perspectives may seem small, but it produces very different ways of viewing the curriculum and the place of our students within it. The latter, more conventional argument has its point, to be sure. Young people certainly do require various competencies related to managing information. But here's the problem: One gets the sense that information is meant to be the hero of this story, and that students exist merely to shine its shoes, schedule its meetings, and drive it around.

If the nation's students were to do more writing and complex analysis, this would indeed amount to a real improvement over the passive rote learning that prevails in many classrooms. But shouldn't we aim a bit higher, asking students to do more than merely serve information? After all, this is neither a particularly appealing portrait of humanity nor even a good description of what people actually do in their post-industrial jobs.

Maybe we shouldn't designate the "information economy" as the polestar that guides our efforts to reform the nation's schools and colleges. What our new economy really demands is that we teach students to interact not with information but with other people, and those people are likely to be distracted, incurious, overworked, and overwhelmed. As Lanham suggests, we need to do much more than present one another with information. We also need, for example, to entice, impress, compel, debate, persuade, flatter, or charm, depending on the situation at hand.

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