When I was a boy playing basketball on a Brooklyn playground, I was fully absorbed by what I was doing. Throughout my life, I've found that same kind of absorption in many other activities: following a sustained argument or a detailed explanation in a book, constructing an argument in my own writing, working with students.
However, it was easy to impair that concentration. If spectators stood at the edge of the court in my Brooklyn playground, my efforts to impress them undermined my focus on the ball. Similarly, worries about an impending test interfered with my ability to comprehend the Pythagorean Theorem. Concerns about the reactions of a particular reader blunted the sharpness of my writing. The presence of a supervisor evaluating my teaching introduced a note of clumsiness into what otherwise might have been a graceful classroom dance. In each case, the quality of my living and learning was diminished.
John Dewey throws some light on my experiences. In his Democracy and Education, he listed some general attitudes he saw as central to good learning. Two of these he named "directness" and "single-mindedness," and he explained that the terms overlap (1964: 173). Learners with these attitudes focus on the task at hand and do not dissipate energy in a self-conscious concern with performance. Dewey argued that losing focus on the task at hand by trying to please others leads to weak performance, deception, and sometimes even revolt. When standards set by others are substituted for the individual's own desires and purposes, it leads to divided attention, or what Dewey called "double-consciousness" (1964: 177).
Dewey acknowledged that some degree of "double-consciousness" would always be with us. After all, we live in communities. We live our lives in the eyes of others, and when we strive after personal virtue or individual competence, we might also be striving to meet community standards, seeking fame or honor, or trying to please others. Rarely do we engage with the world with no other concerns in mind. This is not entirely bad. For example, while some may be appalled at the idea of paying students for high grades, it's not inconceivable that the pursuit of monetary rewards might lead students into worthwhile experiences. We should avoid educational Puritanism.
We might take Dewey's admonitions about "directness," and "single-mindedness," instead, as an admonition to avoid placing learners in situations where external considerations are likely to undercut the quality of their engagement with the world. That leaves us with a lot of wiggle room. We need not seek educational purity. We want to avoid extremes.
When we compel 4th graders to arrive at school an hour earlier than usual to prepare for the latest standardized test, we cross the line where "double-consciousness" destroys good learning. The task at hand for the child--understanding the concept of subtraction or identifying the main idea in a paragraph--is lost in the overwhelming adult concern with test scores. Advising students to choose extracurricular activities in high school in order to impress a college admissions officer certainly is another common practice that undermines the quality of students' experiences. Following one's own interests, rather than what we think might please an admissions officer, seems more likely to result in better learning experiences.
These smaller practices occur within a larger culture that defines educational purpose less with an eye on the quality of individual experience and more with a concern for preparing individuals to take a suitable place in the corporate hierarchy or, more anxiously, to keep them from sliding to society's economic margins. The culture itself thus champions a pathological form of Dewey's "double-consciousness"; its pervasive concern with economic success sets the table for specific practices that diminish learning. Though it's evolved into a particularly virulent form, emphasizing the performance for others with an eye to one's worldly success is hardly an invention of the last few decades of American history. …