John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Silence

February 18, 2011John N. GardnerInsights0

John Gardner
President

I did a blog posting not too long ago reflecting on what students might do when they could find what I called “privacy” by which I meant private space, both mental and spatial, which also implied their getting unconnected for a while. This is a blog about something related, but distinct, silence.

This blog is inspired by a boat cruise my wife and I took yesterday on one of the most spectacular waterways of the world, Doubtful Sound (which is really, technically, a fiord) in New Zealand. We had been out on this boat for about two hours when the pilot and guide, came on the PA and announced that he was shutting down the engine and that he wanted us all to be “silent” for few moments, “to just see what you can hear—the sounds of the birds, the water, all things natural”. It wasn’t too long before this got me to thinking…First of all, I couldn’t remember ever being on a tour of any kind in the States where the guide requested his/her charges to simply be silent (very hard for connected Americans to do) and listen.

Then it reminded me of my son, Jonathan, coming home at about age 16 from the first “Outward Bound” trip I sent him on. For you higher education types “Outward Bound” needs to be distinguished from the highly regarded educational intervention for college bound high school youngsters, “Upward Bound”. Instead, Outward Bound, headquarted in the US in Swannanoa, North Carolina, about 40 miles from where I live in Brevard, North Carolina, is a provider of wilderness hiking/adventure/growth experiences. The first time my son experienced an Outward Bound trip, it was to the Everglades in Florida. And when he returned the first of many things he reported to me was his experience of —silence.

He told me that step one on the trip was for the teenagers to give up all their electronic gadgets that keep them connected and stimulated. And then each was taken and left at a spot in the wilds to be completely alone for 24 hours and tasked to listen and think, and take notes in a provided notepad for this purpose. He described this as a very powerful experience.

When do we call for “a moment of silence”? Most commonly it is in association with some grave event, some loss—personal or communal, and for many this event is characterized by prayer. Usually these “moments” are just that, a minute or two. The implicit point conveyed here is that this moment of silence isn’t anything we would want to continue for two long. It would interfere with something Americans prize: productivity.

The point of my blog is to suggest you to think about interjecting some silence into your students’ lives. What if you began, and/or ended a meeting, a class period, with a request that students stop doing every else, disconnect, and simply be silent. Would this help them make the transition to the start of your class? If you did this at the end of the class, would it help them pull together and make some decisions about what they had learned, the value of this class period? Would it help them make the transition to the next period of the day in a more thoughtful, intentional manner? I don’t know. But I think so.

Even more broadly, what if you just built in a few “silence breaks” into your day? When I get back from New Zealand, I am going to give that a try.


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