Now You See It

  • Cathy N. Davidson
  • Viking
  • 352 pp.

A cogent and powerful argument on why we need to realign our lives for demands of the 21st century.

Reviewed by Josh Trapani

Each weekday morning, I rise at 6:30, don a tie and jacket, and after a walk to the Metro and a train ride downtown, spend the day in my office doing things I could mostly do just as well in my boxer shorts on my living room couch. Yet in the office, work is by no means my only option. With the Internet at my disposal, I can shop, manage my finances, look at pictures from a friend’s vacation…or even (ahem) work on my latest review for the Independent. Returning home in the evening, I intermittently use my iPhone to deal with work issues until bed.

Cathy N. Davidson, a scholar and administrator at Duke University, argues that the separation of our lives into domains of work and home — a staple of 20th-century life — no longer fits the way many of us live. This is the core thesis of Now You See It: In the 21st century, our technologies and our lives are fundamentally mismatched with our societal institutions.

At first blush, it seems difficult to argue with this proposition. Indeed, I eagerly gobbled up this book not only because it is well written and full of interesting examples, anecdotes and people, but also because it provides a framework for understanding my struggle to balance different aspects of my own life. And yet, people will resist the ideas in this book because our ways of thinking — and our institutions — are so entrenched that realigning them is as revolutionary as it is sensible.

Perhaps anticipating this, Davidson starts at the beginning, describing the cultural basis for how babies’ attention is focused into particular pathways and specific modes of learning, and how these modes are reinforced from infancy on. But new ways of learning can themselves be learned, she argues, and we must do so because today’s problems require many different kinds of attention to solve. Indeed, a major theme of the book is that one-size-fits-all thinking and problem-solving skills lead us, as individuals and as a society, to miss important things.

Davidson makes the case that the steady stream of educational jeremiads proclaiming our imminent doom has been combined, in many cases, with a highly outmoded idea of what we should be striving for. The result is failure. After all, we are no longer training children for careers on the factory floor performing a single specialized task over and over again. She makes the case that kids are doing a better job preparing themselves for the future than is our backward-looking, standardized-testing-obsessed educational system, which acts as though new technologies are frivolous, and forces students into one-size-fits-all learning. Students who do not fit the mode are increasingly diagnosed with various “disorders.”

Moreover, she shows that learning need not be a hardship or something people must be forced to do. Group activities and the liberal use of games, including video games, are not only more fun than rote memorization and multiple choice tests, they are also much more effective at teaching the problem-solving skills today’s workers need. And just how far do we need to go to change attitudes? An important U.S. policymaker recently attacked the National Science Foundation for funding research on social media and virtual reality, as well as for using nontraditional methods, like art and music, to teach science.

Active group learning engages students in a kind of collective problem solving, or “multi-tasking,” where the task is split among different people who make contributions according to their strengths. These concepts also apply to today’s workplaces. Davidson highlights, for example, a Danish company that employs people with autism as software testers, tedious and grueling work that autistic people enjoy and do well. Indeed, they do it better than “normal” people. (This company was recently profiled by The New York Times.) Yet autistic employees are underutilized in the workforce because they lack “people skills” and have trouble fitting in with office culture. Why not, Davidson asks, recognize their strengths rather than dismiss them as “disabled” because they do not fit into our one-size-fits-all model of a worker?

While Davidson focuses much of her attention (no pun intended!) on school and work — two institutions that were specifically designed for the industrial world of the 20th century — this mismatch of institutions and our 21st-century lives is ubiquitous. For just one other example, see David Eagleman’s excellent recent article in The Atlantic on how brain science is changing the way we view crime and punishment.

This book, despite its title, is not about wowing the reader with new scientific findings. Nor, again contra the title, is it a prophecy. And thankfully, it is not another paean to the wonders of new technology as exemplified by Twitter and Facebook. Davidson is arguing something far more fundamental. She makes the case, through numerous examples and lucid argument, that we can do much better in aligning our schools, our workplaces and our lives, and that this will make us not only more successful as a society but more fulfilled as individuals. If you have ever felt stymied by policy discussions here in Washington, D.C. (especially those around education and “competitiveness”), this book is liberating. It provides a new lens through which to look at our problems and how we attempt to solve them.

I found it curious that, again and again, the subject matter in this book seemed to intersect the realm of mindfulness meditation. For example, Davidson’s discussion of new ways of learning made me think about research on meditation’s changing of the brain; her claim that one could demonstrate that the human mind is built for multi-tasking by focusing on the way one’s own thoughts drift sounds like an exercise straight out of Meditation for Dummies. But if Davidson sees a connection, she never mentions it, leaving interested readers to wonder.

Beyond that, my one mild criticism is that I would have liked to see more ideas on how to overcome the inevitable entrenched resistance to reforming our institutions. It’s going to be a huge challenge. Then again, this book is powerful and compelling enough that I am confident that the more people read it, the less resistance there will be.

Josh Trapani is the Independent’s senior managing editor.

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