Theses Doctoral

Simone Weil on Attention and Education: Can Love Be Taught?

Yoda, Kazuaki

The concern of this study is the loss of the meaning or purpose of education and the instrumental view of education as its corollary. Today, education is largely conceived of as a means to gain social and economic privilege. The overemphasis on school children's test scores and the accountability of teachers and schools is evidence that education has lost its proper meaning. In such a climate, we observe general unhappiness among teachers, school children, and their parents. Society as a whole seems to have given up on education, not only school education but also the very idea of educated human beings. There is an urgent need to reconsider what education is and what its purpose is. However, these questions—once being the primary concerns of philosophers of education—are barely discussed today. I intend to energize the discourse of the aims of education by examining Simone Weil's thesis that the sole purpose of education is to nurture attention.
It is very hard, however, to agree with Weil's thesis that the sole purpose of education is attention. Is there a single definite purpose to education? Weil suggests that the purpose is attention, but her notion of attention involves religious language and takes essentialist formulation. How can we take her thesis seriously? By addressing such difficulties and potential problems, I argue that her thesis is still compelling if we adequately emphasize her realistic approach to philosophy.
Attention is the disposition of the subject that is open and available to the reality of other people, ourselves, objects (natural and artificial), customs and traditions, ideas, and words such as good, truth, beauty, and God. Attention is also synonymous with love. As the disposition takes various objects, love is also inclusively discussed. The purpose of education, then, is to learn to love.
This study discusses two important aspects of love: the love of other people, which for Weil is nothing but justice, and the love of God. Justice for Weil is not about enforcement of rights as typically understood today. It is equivalent to love in that it involves the recognition of others for themselves, not as a means for our satisfaction. We tend to see other people from our self-centered perspective, but we must stop doing so to partake in justice and love. This detachment from the self-centered perspective is crucial not only in attending to other people, but in attending to everything. Weil proposes the imitation of the divine perspective—or quasi-perspective, to be precise—from which everything, including the most abhorrent human misery, is capable of being loved because it is the result of God's love. By changing our perspective, we learn to love God.
Although it is perhaps inappropriate to include the love of God in the purpose of education (especially school education), the claim that we need to learn to change our perspective and read (in Weil's language) reality better is still compelling. To learn to love is to change how we read. Through proper apprenticeship, we learn to create a comprehensive reading and read reality better. This is achieved through the contemplation of contradictions. Thus, education is apprenticeship in reading and the learning of the method of contemplation.
I conceive of Weil's thesis as a comprehensive response to the question in Plato's Meno: "Can Virtue be Taught?" Replacing the term "virtue" with "attention," Weil responds that it can be taught and it should be the sole purpose of education. Like Plato, Weil considers education to be the conversion of the soul to the Good, while attention is the orientation of the soul to the Good (or God). As we turn to see the contradictions between the transcendent Good and the reality in this world, we need to contemplate the without losing the love of the Good in life's bitterness and confusion.
By learning to contemplate, reading better, and changing perspectives, one could learn to love better. Weil claims that this should be the sole purpose of education. This grand vision of education may re-kindle the meaning of education and suggests a compelling alternative to the now dominating instrumental view of education. It might then save the downcast situation of education observed in teachers, school- children, their parents, college professors, and our society as a whole.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Philosophy and Education
Thesis Advisors
Laverty, Megan
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014