Simone Weil (1909-1943), "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God" (tr. Emma Crauford):
If we have no aptitude or natural taste for geometry this does not mean that our faculty
for attention will not be developed by wrestling with a problem or studying a theorem. On the
contrary it is almost an advantage.
It does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or
understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so. Never in any case
whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted.
If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end
of an hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making
progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing
or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul.
The second condition is to take great pains to examine squarely and to contemplate
attentively and slowly each school task in which we have failed, seeing how unpleasing and
second-rate it is, without seeking any excuse or overlooking any mistake or any of our tutor's
corrections, trying to get down to the origin of each fault. There is a great temptation to do the
opposite, to give a sideways glance at the corrected exercise if it is bad, and to hide it forthwith.
Most of us do this nearly always. We have to withstand this temptation. Incidentally,
moreover, nothing is more necessary for academic success, because, despite all our efforts, we
work without making much progress when we refuse to give our attention to the faults we have
made and our tutor's corrections.
Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort. If one says to one's
pupils: "Now you must pay attention," one sees them contracting their brows, holding their
breath, stiffening their muscles. If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying
attention to, they cannot reply. They have not been paying attention. They have been
contracting their muscles.
Will power, the kind that, if need be, makes us set our teeth and endure suffering, is the
principal weapon of the apprentice engaged in manual work. But contrary to the usual belief, it
has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be
desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. 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 there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of
their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.
Attention is an effort, the greatest of all efforts perhaps, but it is a negative effort. Of
itself, it does not involve tiredness. When we become tired, attention is scarcely possible any
more, unless we have already had a good deal of practice. It is better to stop working altogether,
to seek some relaxation, and then a little later to return to the task; we have to press on and
loosen up alternately, just as we breathe in and out.
Twenty minutes of concentrated, untired attention is infinitely better than three hours of
the kind of frowning application which leads us to say with a sense of duty done: "I have worked
All wrong translations, all absurdities in geometry problems, all clumsiness of style and
all faulty connection of ideas in compositions and essays, all such things are due to the fact that
thought has seized upon some idea too hastily and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to
the truth. The cause is always that we have wanted to be too active; we have wanted to carry
out a search. This can be proved every time, for every fault, if we trace it to its root. There is
no better exercise than such a tracing down of our faults, for this truth is one of those which we can
only believe when we have experienced it hundreds and thousands of times.
Academic work is one of those fields which contain a pearl so precious that it is worth
while to sell all our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it.
Hat tip: Duggan Phillips.