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Book Review

I Can't Hear Myself Think

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.It is difficult within the space of this review to convey how digressive this book is. Without notes and appendices, it comes in at 222 pages. Three of those pages are used for an anecdote about Senechal’s childhood trip by ocean liner to the Netherlands; ten are dedicated to a competent if unremarkable summary and analysis of Sophocles’ “Antigone”; seven more are taken up with a pedantic retracing of a proof from Newton’s “Principia.” There is even a brief defense of digression included that focuses on Laurence Sterne’s novel “Tristram Shandy.” However, Sterne was a comic writer who let his readers know that they were being played with, and encouraged them to take this in good spirit. A nonfiction book of this kind has a different standard to live up to; its tangents should be in the service of a central organizing principle. It is certainly possible to have a highly digressive nonfiction work that is all of a piece — William T. Vollmann’s monumental study of the motivations of violence, “Rising Up and Rising Down,” comes to mind — but this isn’t the case here. The organizing principle that governs “Republic of Noise” is tenuous at best; the overriding impression is of a collection of fragments that have been harvested from other sources and stitched together in a crazy-quilt fashion.

Part of the problem is Senechal’s slippery use of the word “solitude,” which is meant to yoke a number of disparate concepts together. As profoundly moving and as necessary to one’s mental health as solitude can be, Senechal poses that it is more difficult a concept to grasp than it in fact is: “One could thumb through all the dictionaries for a definition of solitude, one could drink up all the literature, and yet no definition would do unless it tightened a gulp or unsheathed a grin.” Sometimes Senechal speaks of solitude as the quality of being alone, either literally or figuratively (as in being alone with one’s thoughts); sometimes solitude is a matter of dissent or iconoclasm, a need to assert one’s uniqueness amid groupthink. Sometimes its meaning is more woolly: it is “nothing more or less than integrity” in one case; in another it “consists partly in our affinities.” And so since the word “solitude” shows up in so many different instances, often with an unclear usage or a meaning that’s been grafted on, the result is a text that’s been made more opaque than it needs to be, in the service of providing the illusion of thematic coherence — in many instances “solitude” could be replaced with “iconoclasm” or “self-esteem” or “loneliness,” with increased clarity and no loss of sense. This slipperiness of usage also shows up with other words such as “discernment” and “sincerity.” “There is something miraculous, indeed, about sincerity,” Senechal writes at one point, and then, in the paragraph just before: “When working out a mathematical proof, one keeps an eye out for hidden flaws and pitfalls. … When learning a language, one becomes increasingly aware of idiom and syntax. All of these sharpenings are forms of sincerity.” Or they are merely the result of paying close attention: No miracle need be involved.

book cover

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

By Diana Senechal

Rowman & Littlefield Education, 263 pages

Buy the book

The prose style of the book is adventurous if uneven. Again, when she is dealing with education and pedagogy, Senechal’s writing is strongest — clear and unornamented, with an occasional sting when she feels the subject deserves it. The further the book drifts away from education, though, the more likely the writing is to take a turn toward the poetic and labored, with mixed results. Her metaphors can sometimes be playful, if deliberately absurd: “We will always be a garageful of things, but when we go on a bicycle ride, we may leave the rake behind. It’s an awkward thing to carry on a bike.” But she can also privilege sound over sense; often her chapters aimlessly trail off into a series of precious images in lieu of a proper conclusion. (“A word or line [when singing in a chorus] makes you shiver, and you know that the shiver is not yours alone, but a rhythm passed from mind to mind, a passing ghost, a frisky gust, the tug of something wrong in the world, a cadence of water and pebbles.”)

And so instead of a straight-ahead critique of current pedagogical practices in public schools, “Republic of Noise” is something altogether more disorganized and strange: If it is not an autobiography, it is perhaps an attempt to portray its author’s interdisciplinary, magpie-like, iconoclastic state of mind. If it fails, it doesn’t compromise, though unvarnished self-expression always runs the risk that the only person who will be sympathetic to your aesthetic choices is yourself. If the price of that form of integrity is a certain kind of solitude, it is a price that Senechal seems more than willing to pay.

Dexter Palmer is the author of “The Dream of Perpetual Motion,” selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best works of debut fiction of 2010. He is currently at work on his second novel.

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