Someone I follow on Twitter recently posted a photograph of this:
The evidence certainly seems to agree with Timberlake. You can’t go anywhere without something ‘entertaining’ your senses. Browse in any shop and there’s music being played, walk through a city centre and there’s some giant screen advertising upcoming events or broadcasting the BBC news channel. And look at all the people. The vast majority of anyone aged under 35 travels around with earphones plugged in while more and more cars are fitted with screens for the kids to watch their DVD, lost in their own personal world. I’m also part of it. I often have the radio on in the background and I’m listening to music even as I’m typing this. So, silence must be really boring, right?
Except, of course, it’s not. If you’ve read previous posts you will know that I’m a teacher and the lost art of silence is something that worries me. Lessons are meant to be fast-paced with plenty of stimulus for pupils with hearty amounts of visual, audio and kinaesthetic learning thrown in for different types of students. I’m not against this. I don’t want turn back the clock to chalk and talk. The problem however can be that education becomes entertainment and if this is repeated for every lesson of the day, for every week of the year, imagine how tired these pupils must become. More importantly, it leaves no space for silence.
When do pupils, or anyone for that matter, find the time and space to think? Not just about what to have for lunch but for the deep thinking that considers issues greater than everyday trivialities. I teach Larkin’s poetry at A Level and so we read ‘Ambulances’. One of the ideas considered in the poem is death which ‘dulls to distance all we are.’ It still amazes me how few of the students have thought about death or the ideas and beliefs that they or others hold. But it’s not their fault, they’re never given the time to do so. Even the silence of death has been taken away from them. Where the minute’s silence was de rigeur for reflection, we have replaced it with the minute’s applause, at least at sporting events. I refrain. The banal has replaced the more fitting meditation on mortality. It seems too much like nihilism with a smile.
There are at least two benefits to silence. The first is the time to think through the way we live and why we live and to try to understand this one life that we’re given. It gives time to question the beliefs we’ve been given by others or the ideas that we hold without even recognising that we hold them. It also allows us to listen. In Marylinne Robinson’s ‘Gilead’ her protagonist claims that “This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.” How can we do that drowning in all this infotainment? Silence allows us to listen to the world around us but also to listen through the medium of reading. Listening to that voice as we read should also make us question, understand and deepen our experience of our own existence. A good friend of mine, now retired, used to build in time during some lessons just to allow pupils to think. With the squeeze on getting results, I’ve neglected that and I’m going to try to rectify it. It may create better thinkers, better readers and, hopefully, better people.