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Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture [Hardcover]

Diana Senechal

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Book Description

17 Nov 2011 1610484118 978-1610484114 1
In Republic of Noise, Diana Senechal confronts a culture that has come to depend on instant updates and communication at the expense of solitude. Where once it was common wisdom that the chatter of the present, about the present, could not always grasp the present, today we treat "real time" as though it were the only real time. Schools emphasize rapid group work and fragmented activity, not the thoughtful study of complex subjects. The Internet offers contact with others throughout the day and night; we lose the ability to be apart, even in our minds. Yet solitude does not vanish; it is part of every life. It plays an essential role in literature, education, democracy, relationships, and matters of conscience. Throughout its analyses and argument, the book calls not for drastic changes but for a subtle shift: an attitude that honors solitude without descending into dogma. Outspoken, lyrical, and unassuming, Senechal's book dismantles the "groupthink" that pervades our lives.

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The variety of available technologies has affected expectations of how information is delivered and consumed. These expectations have privileged the efficiency of knowing a bit about many things over the time necessary to delve deeply into ideas, their history, and their lessons. Using a variety of sources from Sophocles to E. B. White, as well as examples of programming used in public school systems, The Republic of Noise examines the role of noise--understood as the means through which multitudinous information bombards an individual--and the need for solitude as one develops in and out of the public sphere. Special attention is given to how the cacophony of information inundating students in pre-K-12 education makes it difficult, if not impossible, for young people to experience the power of deep engagement with ideas and individuals while learning, and how this affects the development of a sense of self and connection to others. For Senechal, living a meaningful life is not simply having the choices resulting from infinite access to information. Rather, a meaningful life develops from having the time to read, think, and consider, alone and with others. Summing Up: Essential. All readership levels. CHOICE Republic of Noise is a meditation on solitude. What happens when constant communication replaces thoughtful reflection? How can deep learning take place in beehive-like environments? Why are we so afraid of being alone? Diana Senechal offers answers to these and other questions that aren't asked often enough in our plugged-in world. She warns that as our lives become 'noisier and more fragmented' we seem to be losing the ability to look inward, to think for ourselves, and-heaven forbid-to be alone. Though it may sound paradoxical, Senechal posits that solitude can actually improve collaboration. 'In order to do anything of substance, we need a place that is relatively still, not giddy with updates, not caught up in what others think. This place varies from person to person and from situation to situation, but it needs tending, as do the things in it.' Both erudite and eminently readable, Republic of Noise offers nourishing food for thought for teachers, parents, and policy makers. Best consumed in solitude. -- Carol Jago, past president, National Council of Teachers of English Diana Senechal's Republic of Noise is an unusual book. It asks the reader to step back from the tumult of electronic gadgets, the online websites that tell us what to like, the buzz of activity that surrounds us at every moment and to do something extraordinary: think, reflect, ponder. She raises profound questions about our inability to discern our own thoughts, to know ourselves. This is an unsettling book and a very important book. -- Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education; author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System This profound and poetic book is a much-needed counterpoise to the frantic, accusatory atmosphere of current writings on educational reform. Diana Senechal agrees that students need a rich and coherent curriculum, but in our world of constant chatter and distraction they also need moments of undirected calm and, yes, even solitude. So do we all! -- E.D. Hirsch Jr., author of The Making of Americans and Cultural Literacy; founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation Diana Senechal's Republic of Noise is a rare find. A fine thinker whose own well-schooled intellect allows her to work nimbly through examples from literature, poetry, philosophy, mathematics, science, theology, technology and music-practicing 'solitude' before our very eyes-Senechal, while sometimes lyrical in tone, never compromises the authority of her insight. Most people write about education as if it were conducted in a vacuum, with only cursory statistics alluding to social trends. Senechal puts education-both the idea and the daily practice-in the larger context of the culture out of which it is born and which it influences immeasurably. The use of 'solitude' as her enduring image opens up the souls of both schools and the culture at large. -- Claudia Allums, director of the Cowan Center for Education at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture Republic of Noise is a searching exploration of the loss of solitude in contemporary society. As such, it takes its place within a distinguished American tradition of spiritual independence, the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, suspicious of the buzz of the crowd and listening always for the small, still voice within. Senechal's best argument for the value of solitude is her own style of thought: patient, careful, compassionate, humane, and rooted in her experience not only as a teacher but as a self-or as she defiantly puts it, a soul. She thinks things through for herself, and from the ground up. Unlike just about everyone else who writes on education, she grounds her arguments in literary and philosophical sources, not studies and statistics, itself an act of courage and a vindication of the solitary mind. Her book can help us return solitude to a central place in the education of children and the conduct of life. -- William Deresiewicz, author of "Solitude and Leadership" and A Jane Austen Education Combining erudition with first-hand observation, Diana Senechal offers invaluable insights from the front lines of education-the classroom-about the ways in which both learning and teaching are obstructed by America's culture of distraction. Her most crucial point is that the quality of learning in America has eroded through overreliance on everything from the digital technology of interruption to fad-driven teaching methods that discourage the sustained individual concentration required to foster both creativity and logical thinking. This book will and should disturb everyone who understands that our educational system will remain broken unless and until we take on the task of repairing our attention spans-as individuals and as a culture. -- Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason and Never Say Die In this remarkable book, Senechal weaves together her experiences as a public school teacher in New York city, a masterful review of the policies and politics of so-called reform in curriculum over the past several decades, a diagnosis of the condition of frantic distraction in society at large, and a detailed evocation of western traditions of the contemplative life and productive solitude. in the din of contemporary books decrying our hopped-up, hyped-up, wired, Attention-Deficit-Disordered culture, Senechal's book stands out for its erudition and quiet wisdom. It's one of the most inspiring books I've read all year Republic of Noise is a rare achievement, bringing a deeply schooled intelligence to bear upon the pains and follies of contemporary education. Senechal writes elegant prose, a fitting instrument for the vision she presents. Here is an author and a teacher who shows us what it is like, and why it matters, "to recognize other minds". Literary Matters

About the Author

Diana Senechal holds a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures from Yale; her translations of the Lithuanian poetry of Tomas Venclova have appeared in two books, Winter Dialogue and The Junction. A former New York City public school teacher, she has written for numerous education blogs and magazines.She is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We Need this Champion for Solitude! 14 May 2012
By J. Andrew - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
By embracing rather than challenging the constant barrage of noise and online chatter obsessing our society today, our schools and culture are jeopardizing the very wellspring of our country's dominance as a nation of creative individualists - solitude. Thus argues Diana Senechal in Republic of Noise and she seems to be speaking directly to me, a communications professional whose early heroes, including Thoreau, Emerson and Virginia Wolfe, championed the quiet, examined life. Great talent, Senechal reminds us , requires the nurturing of solitary practice and contemplation. Because I was fortunate enough to have grown up with grandparents who were farmers, I experienced the beauty of nature and long, quiet nights in the country away from city noise, TV and radio. The distractions of that era pale compared to today's barrage and Senechal warns that our technology-crazed society is now damaging our lives and our culture, by making quiet reflection almost impossible. Senecal's remarkable and beautifully written book prescribes the need for subtle shifts that make it noble again to disconnect and spend time thinking on one's own. It should be essential reading for everyone, and most especially our educators!
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ode to Solitude 15 July 2012
By Ken C. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
THE REPUBLIC OF NOISE is a thoughtful, contemplative book about the role of solitude in society and education. A student of the classics, author Diana Senechal questions the often unquestioned roles of technology, big ideas, and buzzwords in modern education. Though readers who already question the disproportionate attention to Twitter, Facebook, computers, and cellphones -- in the classroom and elsewhere -- will prove a natural audience for this book, it should be read more by those who do NOT question these things. Why? Senechal's book asks that we consider the electronic bandwagon we are on and question whether it is the right place to be at all times and for all reasons.

What I like best about the book is its courage. Senechal is not afraid to argue her points and name names. She is fair, however, and distinguishes between strengths and weaknesses in the people and movements she writes about. For instance, when writing about Doug Lemov, managing director of the Uncommon Schools and author of TEACH LIKE A CHAMPION, she critiques his "Age Plus Two Rule" (student's optimal attention span = age plus two), his fondness for prepared-in-advance "Do Now" activities the minute students walk through the door, and his insistence that teachers keep all discussions focused and on task. Still, she concludes, "By no means does Lemov oppose thoughtfulness; his ultimate goal is to bring students to the stage where they can grapple with complex material. Yet he does not seem to consider the gaps and pauses that are necessary for such grappling.... When students must show constant activity, the subject itself may be oversimplified."

Common sense dictates that we question everything that is put before us, from the wonders of the on-line Khan Academy for math, to Bloom's Taxonomy, to the term "higher order thinking." And yet we seldom do. Senechal's book is the antidote for our assumptions. It is not to be taken lightly, however. Her writing style and examples (Sophocles, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, Isaac Newton, etc.) are challenging. They also mirror her tastes and fondness for whole-class discussion, deep readings, factual acumen, a common curriculum, and extended stretches of silence for contemplation. In the wrong hands, interpreted the wrong way, this might be used by back-to-basic types as an excuse to drill students with practice sheets (to build background knowledge, you see) and lecture them (they need to learn the patience to listen, you understand) and assign them classics only (their characters are in need of building, you realize). This isn't Senechal's intent, however. Though she distrusts small group work and its ascendancy in recent educational thinking, she is not opposed to its use where appropriate. And though she is a proponent of teaching the classics, she is not opposed to anything modern, as a Tobias Wolff short story is referenced. (Unmentioned, however, is young adult literature, which I would have loved to have heard her thoughts on.)

And those are important words: "where appropriate." Technology? It's fine, where appropriate, but her fear is that it is being used for the sake of being used because teachers and administrators consider it "good teaching practice" and necessary for "21st-century skills" (which also gets its comeuppance here). Her message is similar to the Preacher's in Ecclesiastes: There is a time for everything. Is that the message being heard in education circles these days, however? Though I do not agree with everything Senechal says, I do agree that the answer to that question is "no." An even approach honoring the role of solitude and deeper thought and discussion is not being considered by all. In short, the chatter of electronics, the seductions of online applications, and the need to constantly herd students into groups where they can quickly create "products" as proof of learning are the operatives.

In reading this, you might assume the book is totally dedicated to education. It is not. Part of it deals with solitude's role historically and in the present in general. In that sense, some chapters may be of more value to educators than others. Also, know that Senechal is not prescribing solutions with step-by-step instructions on how to fix our schools or ourselves. The book is more a cautionary tale, a plea for slowing down to consider where we are going and what certain words, strategies, and ideas actually mean when you think about them (as opposed to just accept them at face value). If nothing else, despite the sometimes heavy going (an extended example from Newton's PHILOSOPHIAE NATURALIS PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA, for instance), REPUBLIC OF NOISE will create some healthy cognitive dissonance for its readers -- especially if said readers thought they had all the answers, or even most of them.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Return to Solitude 12 April 2012
By Vic Jones - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Typically, when someone says, "I couldn't put the book down until I was finished," they are talking about fiction. But that statement most definitely applies to my reading of Diana Senechal's Republic of Noise. Solitude has always struck a chord with me, and I've read various takes on the experience of being alone, including works on spiritual disciplines, such as Thomas Merton and Richard Foster. Republic of Noise, however, addresses not only the need for solitude, but it also speaks to how our culture has sacrificed the experience to the group think of the day. As an educator, Senechal relates the importance of solitude to the school system, and numerous ways it has been lost in group-think, group projects, aggregate statistics, and the bent toward conformity. Likewise, she addresses the premises of much of the research in education that touts group-think and group learning. Consequently, she provides a philosophical analysis of the reams of research that preaches group learning. As fulfilling as her discussions are regarding solitude, I appreciated Senechal's take on education and the need to return to the subject. In addition to sacrificing the innovation and creativity that emerges from the reflection and rumination while being alone, the educational system with its emphases on testing scores, social learning, and practice skills has sacrificed the subject, be it math, languages, or literature. No longer are students taught or allowed to delve into the subject for its own beauty and delight. Academia now worships at the altar of pragmatism. Senechal is an immensely skilled writer, speaking to an important topic in our time as we witness the problems in our schools. But simple educational reform is not the answer. We must get back to the beauty of learning and loving the subject for its own value. And the way we get there is through the practice of our own solitude. But solitude carries all the risks that being alone always carries. Existential aloneness produces the anxieties that come with being with ourselves and truly stepping into knowing ourselves. Not since Anneli Rufus' A Party of One, have I thoroughly enjoyed a read like Senechal provides in the Republic of Noise.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Much substance and truthful to life. 11 Dec 2012
By coco - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Nowadays, when immediacy and marketing infiltrate everywhere, including educational system, a lot of substance, which requires thoughts and time to digest, might get lost. Diana Senechal articulates well and thoughtful, using many of her own experiences, on why not everything would work well under one system.
5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Most Vital Examination of Society Today 15 May 2012
By Stephen W. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Diana Senechal's THE REPUBLIC OF NOISE is a harrowing account of technology's overlooked effects on society and culture. As technology provides immediate access to information via email, text messages, Tweets, Facebook status updates, etc. (the list can go on and on), thoughtful individual examination suffers. Senechal suggests that constant access to technology has created a culture where multitasking has become the norm. In classrooms, at work and even at the dinner table, nonstop stimuli destroy focus and reflection. Is the answer to unplug? This hardly seems possible, given our reliance on technology. What is possible is simply stepping back. To do so, Senechal prescribes not drastic changes, but subtle shifts. One must occasionally disconnect, discover apartness and refocus attention on the things of solitude such as literature, science, art, friendship and matters of the conscience. In this thoughtful and poetic work of art, Senechal dares to ask questions that have such important implications, not only for the individual, but also for society as a whole. A must-read!
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