After graduation, Peter Schmidt '20 spent two years searching for direction. He worked at an immigration law firm securing visas for artists seeking asylum, and subsequently at the Igarape Institute, a Brazil-based think-tank where he researched the confluence of climate change and armed violence. In his recounting, both of these positions called on the interests he deepened through PLAS — in translation, in the negotiation of the violence of borders, and in the attempt to cultivate and practice shared commitments across difference. Still, at the end of two years, he knew that neither role was quite right for him.
In the spring of 2022, Peter quit his position at Igarapé. He knew that he wanted to complete the novel which had been his senior thesis project with the Latin American Studies, Creative Writing and Environmental Studies departments. He also knew that, whatever he ended up pursuing, climate change was the injustice whose solution he hoped to serve. Beyond that, he had no sense of where he was headed.
Precisely at that time, Peter was introduced to a coalition of artists, teachers and activists who call themselves the Friends of Attention. The common commitment of the community was, as he learned, the protection and cultivation of human attention in the face of the hugely lucrative and immensely powerful "Attention Economy," an extractive industry that seeks to convert our eyeballs, via digital platforms and predictive analytics, into profit.
Peter had never thought about his experience of technology in those terms. But the more time he spent with the Friends, the more he understood that attention was, indeed, threatened, and at the root of many of the things he cared about: art, language, community, and the means by which we relate to the natural world that sustains us.
In September of last year, he stepped in as the Program Director of the Attention Labs, the Friends' experiential workshop program. The Labs were designed to reconnect communities to the power of their radical attention — to experience attention deeply, to learn how to practice that faculty, and to reclaim agency over it as a collective. In that time, he has expanded the team, codified the curriculum, and overseen the facilitation of more than twenty public workshops. These workshops have taken place across the United States, and in Brazil, and Spain (in Portuguese and Spanish, respectively).
This past summer, the Friends built the Attention Labs into a Brooklyn-based institution called The Strother School of Radical Attention. The School is a non-profit adult education initiative that combines seminar courses on the history, philosophy and politics of attention with the Friends' free, experiential Labs. Their vision is to create a community of inquiry that makes space for everyone, irrespective of academic persuasion or educational background. It will, they hope, equip students with the tools to collectively resist the incursions of the Attention Economy, and thereby advance the basic commitments of the humanities: questions of justice and beauty, of shared reality, of how to live together. Ultimately, it is Schmidt's hope that a pedagogy of radical attention can help equip our communities with the cognitive faculties, shared practices and strength of spirit to mount an effective collective response to the climate crisis.
The School launched its first two public Labs this past July, to great effect, while the seminar courses open in the fall (some taught by Princeton professors!). Anyone in the PLAS community is welcome to reach out if they'd like to learn more.
Peter reflects: "What has most surprised me about the past three years has been the ways in which the commitments that led me to PLAS have surfaced again and again in subsequent years, in vastly different circumstances. On its face, my work with the Strother School bears no resemblance to my undergraduate learning with PLAS, where I studied environmental humanities. But in another sense — perhaps one best articulated in conversation, for whoever may be interested — I understand that I am heeding the same curiosity, deepening the same inquiries, advancing the same commitments. Life beyond campus gates is impossibly broad (may it be endless in its variety!), but the questions we ask in those formative years stay with us, if we allow it to do so. The learning never ceases."