John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Quiet Please: Student Thinking Space

September 12, 2012John N. GardnerInsights1

John N. Gardner

I am writing this posting during my annual fall vacation (with my wife, Betsy Barefoot) in New England. I have noted to myself that it is noteworthy that two of the three places we will be staying over two weeks have banned cellular access (Stockbridge, MA, and Shelburne, VT). This really facilitates my aspiration to be as unplugged as possible.

When I am on vacation, my favorite way to explore new terrain is by jogging. I am particularly drawn to places of quiet and absence of vehicular traffic. Cemeteries are often a good bet, really peaceful places for contemplation while moving. My two favorites in New England are in Stockbridge and Lenox, MA. I had a favorite in college too, in my college town of Marietta, Ohio: the Mound Cemetery, named for a prehistoric Indian mound around which more Revolutionary war soldiers and officers are buried than any cemetery in the country.

While jogging in the cemetery in Stockbridge I was thinking about all the efforts on American college campuses to teach “thinking skills”, especially “critical thinking” and “reflection.” We are investing much institutional energy into faculty development to enable our professoriate to teach these prized skills. But there in the graveyard it occurred to me that we are not remotely investing our own thinking, time, energy, and resources into creating more ideal places for students to think.

So what if we created zones, spaces, specifically designated for thinking? Isn’t this what colleges and universities are supposed to be all about—thinking? Thinking that leads to discovery, research, publication, dissemination, replication, adoption, emulation, and redeeming social value? Or thinking that lead to entertainment? Or problem solving? Or decision making? Or epiphany?

Walk around any campus in America in search of good places for thinking. Good luck. The people who manage many campus residence halls want as much space as possible to be revenue generating space. Not space solely for quiet and reflection.

Can you imagine as part of orientation a student walking tour, led by influential peer leaders, showing the novitiates the best places for solitude and thinking?

Student unions also place a premium on revenue generating space. And after that comes meeting space. Where would thinking space fit into that facility?

There are about 2000 public colleges and universities and most of them do not have non-denominational chapels. Too bad. Those places are rarely used, and hence are great places for thinking.

What about outdoor space? I have visited a number of commuter campuses where there is no outdoor space for congregating, let alone solitary thinking. We wonder why commuter students don’t hang out more on campus? No surprise. We have created a self fulfilling prophecy. We don’t make staying on campus inviting and so students don’t stay.

And what about libraries? When I learned that President Kennedy was shot on that Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963, all I could think of was that I needed to find a quiet place to think. The first place that occurred to me was the College library. And it was soon deserted. A perfect choice. My usual first choice in the library was the rare book room. There was almost never any other student in there, just an occasional professor pursuing his/her monastic lifestyle, which I did not know yet would be my chosen life too.

Libraries have come a long way. Now we can eat in them. And there are now rooms for student study groups. Surely we could add a few rooms for student thinking. In addition to the carrels.

I think maybe the best alternative would be to designate some spaces ind academic, classroom, buildings. Because the majority of our campuses are not residential, and because commuter students spend the majority of their time in the buildings where their classes are, this seems to me to be the place where we need to concentrate.

Just think what an impression this would make on newly arriving students from high school! The thought of signs in American high schools reading: “Quiet please: Student Thinking Space” would be unthinkable. What better way to send the message to new college students that college is going to be different. That college is about thinking.

In order to help college fulfill its potential as places to teach thinking, and for students to actually think, we have to make our campuses better places to think. A place to start would be to improve our signage to specifically designated places for contemplation. When I was a first-year student I had to seek out my own. And I sure could have used a little help. Students still need this today, perhaps more than ever.

One Comment

  1. Bryce BuntingSeptember 14, 2012 at 11:49 amReply

    Great insights, John. I particularly appreciated your comments on campus libraries and the notable absence of designated thinking spaces. In fact, I see libraries moving in the opposite direction, toward more and more “collaborative” spaces. On my campus, the library recently created a “No Shhhh Zone” where students can be as loud as they want. Clearly, collaborative spaces and group study areas are important, but I worry about a possible future where there are no spaces for quiet reflection.

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