John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The End of the Term Calls for Some Silence

John Gardner

Here it is nearing the end of the traditional academic term. At this point in the semester I always found it difficult to restrain my natural inclination to give my students some unsolicited advice, not only about how best to cope with finals period, but some perspectives on their decisions that might be made after term ended and before the next one—like whether or not to come back.

A few months ago I was on a campus and was given a fairly lengthy tour by an outstanding senior. As we walked and talked and began to get to know each other, I learned that he was confronting two major decisions: 1) whether to take a lucrative job in corporate America or go to graduate school; 2) and if graduate school, whether or not to go to same grad school as his significant other. If he chose # 1 it would very likely mean the end of his relationship and if he chose a graduate school other than one she was committed to, probably the same result for the relationship. I mean these were really heavy duty decisions. And any choice he made could have lifelong consequences.

As we walked his beautiful campus we strolled by the chapel. I asked him what it was used for and if he ever used it himself. He told me he had never been inside, and he had been there all four years, on a residential campus. So I offered to escort him inside! We wandered in and we both noted how quiet it was. I suggested he return sometime, alone, and just sit down and think about his choices.

This student was like the overwhelming majority of today’s college students—they live lives without silence. They are constantly connected. But their connections are mainly for succinct communications and rarely involve any thinking or communicating in depth of any kind.

I find myself constantly having an interior monologue with myself speculating if my life, and those of others around me are, on balance, better with all out gadgets for connectivity. It is, of course, not a simple yes, no, or even maybe. I am one of many academics and public intellectuals who have become very concerned for the alienating effects of technology on our students, how in some ways it prevents the very depth and intimacy that I wish they could experience, both personally and intellectually.

There are two excellent writings just out on this that have come to my attention, one the day of my writing this blog and the other just a week or so before. I recommend the piece “The Flight from Conversation” in “Sunday Review” of The New York Times, April 22, 2012, page 1, above the fold, by Sherry Turkle. She is a psychologist and faculty member at MIT and the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.

The second piece is the most recent issue of the Atlantic. On the cover there is an undressed couple in an intimate embrace. The man is looking over the woman’s shoulder and holding up his smart phone without her being able to see what he is doing. He has a frenzied look on his face as he reads his phone screen, while his lover unknowingly appears lost and content in her own embrace. The article is entitled “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?” It is written by Stephen Marche.

When I look back on my own college experience, I can easily recall so many rich, rich experiences, intellectually, developmentally, personally. But above all, the richest were those that I experienced in conversations with others. I am so glad I didn’t have a smart phone then, didn’t tweet, didn’t text. For me the word “text” had multiple meanings and that alone made me very different from today’s students. For me, text was a noun, not a verb.  And here ends my “text” for the day.

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