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I Can’t Hear Myself Think

Posted on May 25, 2012

By Dexter Palmer

“Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture”
A book by Diana Senechal

Diana Senechal’s occasionally insightful but ultimately scattershot book “Republic of Noise” initially seems to position itself as one of a growing collection of publications whose common trait is a cautionary attitude toward newly developed communication technologies. Although these books—including Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget”; Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”; Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together”; Thomas de Zengotita’s “Mediated”; and a host of others—generally assert that the many methods we have developed for convenient, instantaneous communication have paradoxically distanced humans from one another and eroded their capacity for empathy, Senechal takes a slightly different tack, arguing that the omnipresence of computers and tablets and smartphones hampers our ability to commune not just with one another, but with ourselves.

Senechal’s background is as an academic, with a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literature from Yale; she is also an educator who has taught English as a second language in New York City’s public schools. (The book’s jacket is covered with endorsements from well-known writers on education and culture, though troublingly, five out of the six blurbs on the back cover were provided by people who are cited favorably within the text itself, and one of those five comes from Diane Ravitch, to whom “Republic of Noise” is “dedicated with gratitude.”) The sections of the book on education are by far the strongest. Through a series of incisive analyses of pedagogical practices, Senechal portrays an absurd, technology-addled educational environment in which teaching has become disconnected from learning, and methods alone are thought to be sufficient to educate, irrespective of whether those methods are invested with any meaning. She questions the often commercial-driven adoption of technology in the classroom when it comes without any real consideration of whether that technology is in fact a benefit to students, or perhaps even a liability. For example, she considers “clickers”—hand-held electronic devices distributed to students that allow the teacher to poll the class by posing a multiple-choice question and instantly aggregating the responses. Such devices might assist learning for some students in some instances, but technology has a pernicious habit of convincing people that it is always useful in all instances. The result in the case of “clickers” is that lectures often become workshops, and complex ideas that are best relayed through continuous, uninterrupted speech are broken down into fragments that are needlessly difficult to synthesize—the better to allow students to use their clickers.

To see long excerpts from “The Republic of Noise” at Google Books, click here.

Senechal’s critique of pedagogical practices often returns to the unwarranted quantification of quality—she regularly points out that mere statistical measurements can never serve as sufficient indicators of success. She hones in on faddish methods of measuring “results”: whether students are speaking or not, and how much; whether they are applying currently fashionable boilerplate strategies to the analyses of texts; whether they are beginning conversations with the proper “starter phrases.” Her indictment of the “workshop model” that was implemented in many New York City public schools starting in 2003 is particularly damning. In the workshop model, the class period is divided into several components that apportion different times to different activities, such as a “mini-lesson” or group work on a given subject. The implicit expectation of administrators in the New York City Department of Education was that the workshop model would be used in all classes, but “[it] was not suitable for presentation of a mathematical proof or for discussion of literature,” Senechal writes. “One high school social studies teacher protested, ‘How do you explain the causes of World War I or the rise of fascism in Europe in 10 minutes?’ ”

book cover


Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture


By Diana Senechal


Rowman & Littlefield Education, 263 pages


Buy the book

What solutions does Senechal offer? They tend to center on a return to earlier styles of teaching that are less encumbered by machines. She is a champion of the classics, and of having a canon that gives students a common subject of discussion. She argues in favor of the long lecture, even if it tests the students’ attention spans; she compliments the silent student who may be silent not because he isn’t performing the act of engagement, but because he is actually listening and learning. She suggests that technology should be adopted in the classroom with an appropriate degree of circumspection, on a case-by-case basis: “Without apology, [schools] should teach students to read, write and practice without any distractions from the Internet, cellphone or TV, and to make a daily habit of this. ... Schools should make use of technology but should also teach students how to do without it.”

If it were half its length, with a tighter focus on education, “Republic of Noise” would be a vital contribution to an important and sorely needed discussion. However, the subtitle of the book is “The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture,” and it is when the book drifts into its contemplations of solitude and culture that it stumbles.

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