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.