Education and the Skill of Focusing

There are various names and places that float around our minds because of their mention in movies, comic books, cartoons, skits, and innumerable other mass media “contacts” with these “famous” persons and locales out there in ill-defined “media land” and hence our imaginations. Let’s use Cardinal Richelieu (died 1642) as an example and see what it would mean to go from inchoate and amorphous to “under control” somehow.

There are innumerable movies featuring Richelieu, including made-up movie titles such as The Loves of Cardinal Richelieu mentioned in the British classic movie from 1945, Brief Encounter by David Lean and Noël Coward.

The romantic pair, Laura and Alec discuss two movies to choose between, The Loves of Cardinal Richelieu and Love in the Mist, both fictional. The movie is set in 1938 and the former fictional title is based on the real movie Cardinal Richelieu from 1935.

One can of course read up on Richelieu in reference books, encyclopedia, Wikipedia and so on. The problem there is that the entry is a welter of facts and dates and kings and places so that you can’t really get a “handle” or achieve focus and come away with an intricate set of fragmentary facts which then “evaporate” from the mind as the days and weeks go by.

Here’s an alternative characterization of Richelieu that gives you a real “flashlight” of comprehension:

“The three principal ministers (Richelieu was one of them) divided among themselves the presentation of the reform program to the assembly, Richelieu significantly reserved for himself the theme of financial reform.

As he observed in his Testament Politique, finance was like the fulcrum of Archimedes, which, once established, could move the world.”

(Richelieu and Olivares, J.H. Elliott, Cambridge University Press, 1991, page 80)

Richelieu was a statesman who, like others of his time, was instrumental in the centralization of national power and saw modernized public and royal finances (taxes, spending, budgets) as the key to stable nation-building. We now call this way of management, “the fiscal stance.”

Thus Richelieu was a significant force in fusing fiscal reforms to centralized national French power looking both inward and outward. Thus, all the colorful real and imagined movie depictions are covering up his basic impetus: money and the French state.

Every student should be on the lookout for ways to bring names and places into focus and not “swim forever” in movie images.

Go back to the movie Brief Encounter for a moment. On her first trip to Milford after meeting Dr. Harvey, Laura (the female protagonist) walks past a bookstore window. On display are a range of books published in 1944 and 1945, including Something in My Heart by Walter Greenwood, A Showman Goes East by Carroll Levis, The End of the Mildew Gang by S. Fowler Wright, Capri Moon by Kelman Dalgety Frost, Winter’s Tales by Karen Blixen, Triple Mirror by Kathleen Wallace, Once a Jolly Swagman by Montagu Slater, and Grand Barrage by Gun Buster (a.k.a. John Charles Austin). The only one of these works that survives today is Winter’s Tales by Karen Blixen (born Karen Dinesen; pen name Isak Dinesen) whose works are still very current such as the famous movies Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast.

Again, the educational point is to develop the “focusing skill” and the ability to extract some “signals from all the noise.”