Schools vs. Noise

Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture
By Diana Senechal
(R&L Education, 288 pages, $24.95)

Republic of Noise is a truly brilliant book, but one so remote from the daily activities associated with the life of a conventional classroom teacher as to make one question its relevance to school improvement.

I am entirely sympathetic with Diana Senechal’s views, as I understand them:

1) She is a classicist who believes that educated people should be familiar with the common core of generally-accepted literary classics.  Hence, she uses Greek drama and Newtonian physics to argue for in-depth knowledge and understanding of certain basic texts.

2) She deplores the history of fads that have informed the history of American education in the 20th century.  She has a particularly limited tolerance for the obsessive preoccupation of “educationists” with the social aspect of a child’s development, which has detracted from serious attention to the substance of what is taught.

3)  She regards many recent initiatives unfavorably as having no positive influence on academic achievement. They include cooperative learning, 20th century skills, the “cult of success” in which innovations are developed in direct proportion to the likelihood of student success, rather than their intrinsic value.

4)  She is particularly critical of the indiscriminate reliance on technology and group activity which inevitably puts undue emphasis on strategy and process at the expense of what used to be referred to as the life of the mind, or engagement with the text itself.

Senechal sees much of contemporary society as self-destructive.  It moves too fast, and is riddled with all kinds of cacophony.  Schools are breathlessly trying to catch up with the speed of change, but in fact are changing all too little to enable their students to measure up to their global competitors.

The principle leitmotif informing the book is, as the title suggests, the all-pervasive lack of solitude (variously defined) in contemporary society.  By solitude, she does not mean the solitude of a monk in his cell.  Rather, the total lack of reflection inherent in our culture detracts from our students’ ability to conceptualize or think analytically.  Instruction, as a result, concentrates on the short answer mirrored in the standardized testing used to judge the success or failure of both institutions and individual students.

To reiterate, I admire the raw intelligence of the arguments advanced in the book.  I am on Senechal’s side, especially when it comes to taking on the educationists cited in the book.  However, this is an abstract treatise, and many teachers will find it difficult, if not impossible, to translate the author’s convictions into everyday application in the classroom.  I wish it were otherwise.

-A Graham Down.

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