Anyone who has done some reading in Eastern philosophy understands the concept of yin yang, the relationship of opposing forces in the universe and how they complement each other. Paradoxically, we see the same relationship between technology and solitude, only the yin (solitude) is getting drowned out by the yang (technology). How unfortunate is that?
For Christmas, I was blessed with three gift cards to the last of the brick and mortars, Barnes and Noble, and one of my purchases has already been determined: Diana Senechal’s Republic of Noise. The book was featured in a sidebar of an article called “The Cult of Success” in the latest American Educator and, as I read, I saw the importance of hearing out this voice in the wireless wilderness. In persuasive writing and speaking, we preach the importance of researching both sides of an issue, after all, of being knowledgeable before judging. Reading this dissent is just the antidote, then, to the deluge of material on technology’s essential role in education, the promises of 2.0, and the necessity of every child being “connected” and “laptopped” in his or her seat.
As I’ve written before, I am no Luddite. On the contrary, I understand technology’s importance as a tool and a strategy in many of our lessons. I am at times troubled, however, by the way technology is often built into lessons for the sake of technology alone. Equating technology in every lesson to teaching proficiency reminds me of other myths, such as the one that equates heavy homework loads with rigor. No. It’s not that simple. Few things in life are.
I thought I’d share a few excerpts from Diana Senechal’s preview of her book, adding my own comments. Her point is this: solitude is important to education, too. Students need to know how to work and think alone — unwired alone, if you can imagine — as well as how to collaborate in class and on-line with virtual partners. When you imagine the thousands of lonely but fruitful hours spent by the likes of Ben Franklin, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson, Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, Aristotle, William Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, and countless others, you wonder how history would look if children were taught that constant interaction with others and (if it were possible) machines are the preferred method of learning. In the words of the prophet (OK, Paul Newman): “You only grow when you are alone.”
“Our public schools,” writes Senechal, “which should encourage students to see beyond the claims of the movement, have instead caved in to the immediate demands of the larger culture and economy. Convinced that the outside world calls for collaboration, school leaders and policymakers expect teachers to incorporate group work in their lessons, the more of it the better. They do not pay enough attention to the ingredients of good collaboration: independent thought, careful pondering of a topic, knowledge of the subject, and attentive listening.
“One oft-touted practice in elementary school is the ‘turn and talk’ activity, where a teacher pauses in a story she is reading aloud, asks a question, and has the students talk to their partners about it. When they are done, they join hands and raise them in the air. Instead of losing themselves in the story, they must immediately contend with the reactions of their peers. Many districts require small-group activities, throughout the grades, because such activities presumably allow all student to talk in a given lesson. Those who set and enforce such policies do not consider the drawbacks of so much talk. Talk needs a counterbalance of thought; without thought, it turns into chatter.”
Here Senechal presumes herself — namely, that “thought” can only occur during one’s own reflections. Clearly certain kinds of thought can develop in talk as well. Nevertheless, I understand her to mean that a balance must be struck, and that teachers of our day and age are embracing the misconception that working and thinking alone equates to bad teaching practice, when in fact, it is an essential part of a blended approach (to steal a term from the technocrats). Also of note is Senechal’s delineation of part from whole. What good is all of this collaboration (“noise”), on-line or in-class, if the skills that go into it are not taught as well? Students must learn to collaborate with themselves, so to speak, before they can learn to collaborate with each other.
In her defense of solitude’s advantages, Senechal turns from overemphasis of classroom collaborations to the siren call of the Internet. She quotes Mark Bauerlein, who warns that “screen intelligence,” while good for certain kinds of mental agility, “conditions minds against quiet, concerted study, against imagination unassisted by visuals, against linear, sequential analysis of texts, against an idle afternoon with a detective story and nothing else.” She follows with words of Nicholas Carr: “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.”
Senechal acknowledges the many advantages of the wireless world, but cautions, “We become so accustomed to quick answers that we lose the habit of slow browsing and reading.” Any teacher can attest to that struggle. Both students and their most important role models, their parents, are reading less as a whole. More time is being surrendered to the Gods of Instant Gratification, and the “I” that used to be us as individuals is quickly becoming co-opted into the “i” of iPhones, iPads, and iTunes. If pronouns could cry, “I” would be within its rights to shed a tear.
“Standing alone is not easy or always enjoyable,” Senechal writes in the excerpt’s conclusion, “but we would flail without some room for solitude. We cannot have meaningful relationships with others unless we know how to stand apart. We cannot learn unless we make room for learning in our minds. We cannot make sound decisions unless we are able to examine the options on our own, in quiet, along with any advice or information at hand. We cannot distinguish fads from sound ideas if we have never questioned social pressures and fashion. We cannot participate in a democracy without deep understanding of the issues at stake. We cannot accomplish anything of beauty unless we are willing to spend many hours working on it alone. We cannot endure disappointment, rejection, bereavement, or distress unless we have a place to go in ourselves. Without solitude our very thoughts tend toward one-liners. Without solitude, we set ourselves up for half-hearted pursuits. The catch is that solitude by its nature, cannot be a movement. Each person must find it alone.”
Presumably Senechal learned the rhetorical art of anaphora, then honed it, while alone. Both writing and reading are thought-intensive pursuits practiced in solitude, after all. As we have been told by our forefathers and have taught our own students, writing is thinking, and reading is a compact wherein we think and interact with a silent author. Must all of our teaching time, then, be conducted among the clamor of on-line activities and wireless interactions?
Senechal would plead otherwise. Senechal would argue the importance of yin to “complement through counteraction” the opposing yang. And yet, as we hear alarms that the sky is falling on ALL traditional methods of schooling (and should be falling, for that matter), we forget this or, at the very least, doubt ourselves. We need to accommodate technology where appropriate, not bow in submission to its tyranny because the latest fad defines it as “the future of education.” If we do so, we risk instructing our students in the value — no, the necessity — of “alone-ness,” a place where one can meditate and mull on topics in peace and for great stretches of time. If our students are incapable of this, then we have failed to teach them the balanced essence of life and thought itself, not to mention what it means to be human.