Book Review

September 28, 2012
Karen Virag

In Praise of Solitude

The Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture
Diana Senechal
2011, 288 pages
Rowman & Littlefield

Many thoughtful and capable students dislike working on teams, enjoy thinking on their own, and are not necessarily disagreeable. If ‘common-core standards for social-emotional learning’ do indeed catch on, they may cast eccentric, dreamy, and reclusive individuals as deficient.

—Diana Senechal, from Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture

Hallelujah! Finally, someone willing to slay some sacred educational cows, like the almost unassailable belief in the greatness of group work in schools. As I child I was one of Diana Senechal’s “reclusive individuals,” so it is particularly heartening to read now that I was not deficient, even if I felt so at the time.

There are many more such provocative thoughts in Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, by Diana Senechal, a U.S. educational philosopher (with a PhD in Slavic studies) who taught for four years in New York City public schools and currently teaches philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering, in New York City. Senechal argues that “the chatter of the present,” the title of the book’s first chapter, and society’s obsession with real time have erased concepts of the value of solitude, creative work and the life of the mind from our schools and from public life. Paradoxically enough, though society is unhealthily obsessed with individualism (which is not the same as solitude), it is at the same time a cheerleader for group work. God help the person who is not a “team player” these days. For Senechal, group work in schools forces teachers to focus on student behaviour, not on the substance of lessons.

The teacher … does not have time to challenge the students rigorously; she usually checks to see whether they are working well together, employing the appropriate ‘strategies,’ and getting things done. Another danger is that the groups, in order to stay cohesive and ‘on task,’ may disregard ideas that seem too complicated or challenging. Group work, even when conducted well, tends to bring the members toward the middle; it takes an extraordinary group to do otherwise.

Obviously not all group work is bad, and learning to cooperate with one another is an important lesson, but Senechal makes a powerful case for re-examining its central role in education.

Another of Senechal’s targets is our obsession with so-called real time, at the expense of the past or even the future, and the way technology (specifically, the Internet) robs us of our ability to be apart and alone. She points to the vital role of solitude in education, matters of conscience and, especially, literature, and cites a fascinatingly broad array of sources—Arendt, Chekov, Auden, Thoreau, Petrarch, Yeats and Newton, among others—to illustrate and bolster her arguments.

One of the drawbacks of Republic of Noise is that it about the U.S. school system. And though there are similarities between our societies, there are substantial differences in our education systems; for example, Canada does not have a national curriculum. And even with charter schools (only in Alberta, though) and private schools, the Canadian public education system is much more robust than the highly stressed U.S. system. Still, technology has flattened cultural differences, and innovations in education easily transverse the 49th parallel, and terms like differentiated instruction and phrases like “teachers being guides on the side” are common to both systems.

The Republic of Noise is not an easy read. The author’s points are sometimes too oblique and laboriously arrived at, but teachers, especially language arts and social studies teachers, will find much useful discussion in this book. Broadly speaking, The Republic of Noise is a call not for dramatic action but for a change in thinking and a reappraisal of solitude. Senechal writes:

Schools can honor solitude in two ways. First, they should stop pushing group work and technology at all times and places. They are not suited to all subjects, topics, and situations. If they are used wisely, with discretion, they will gain meaning. Second, schools should give students things worth thinking about and show them how to do so. If students are learning things that they can carry through their lives, discuss with each other and the teacher, and practice on their own, there will be room for solitude.

I had a silly argument with a teenaged lifeguard at the pool the other day. I wanted him to turn off the piped-in music. He couldn’t understand how any human being could possibly not want to listen to the songs that he had personally loaded onto his iPod. I couldn’t understand how anyone could listen to rock music at 6 in the morning. In fact, it is during the quiet hours of the day, often when I am swimming laps, that I have my most productive thinking time. But I take back my use of the adjective silly, because essentially we were arguing about how our world should be. And like the author of Republic of Noise, I long for places where quiet reigns and solitude is valued. And I wish the same for our constantly wired, chattering, plugged-in, button-pressing students.

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Karen Virag is the ATA’s supervising editor, publications, and a book reviewer for the Edmonton Journal.