Schools vs. Noise

By 03/14/2012

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Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture
By Diana Senechal
(R&L Education, 288 pages, $24.95)

Republic of Noise is a truly brilliant book, but one so remote from the daily activities associated with the life of a conventional classroom teacher as to make one question its relevance to school improvement.

I am entirely sympathetic with Diana Senechal’s views, as I understand them:

1) She is a classicist who believes that educated people should be familiar with the common core of generally-accepted literary classics.  Hence, she uses Greek drama and Newtonian physics to argue for in-depth knowledge and understanding of certain basic texts.

2) She deplores the history of fads that have informed the history of American education in the 20th century.  She has a particularly limited tolerance for the obsessive preoccupation of “educationists” with the social aspect of a child’s development, which has detracted from serious attention to the substance of what is taught.

3)  She regards many recent initiatives unfavorably as having no positive influence on academic achievement. They include cooperative learning, 20th century skills, the “cult of success” in which innovations are developed in direct proportion to the likelihood of student success, rather than their intrinsic value.

4)  She is particularly critical of the indiscriminate reliance on technology and group activity which inevitably puts undue emphasis on strategy and process at the expense of what used to be referred to as the life of the mind, or engagement with the text itself.

Senechal sees much of contemporary society as self-destructive.  It moves too fast, and is riddled with all kinds of cacophony.  Schools are breathlessly trying to catch up with the speed of change, but in fact are changing all too little to enable their students to measure up to their global competitors.

The principle leitmotif informing the book is, as the title suggests, the all-pervasive lack of solitude (variously defined) in contemporary society.  By solitude, she does not mean the solitude of a monk in his cell.  Rather, the total lack of reflection inherent in our culture detracts from our students’ ability to conceptualize or think analytically.  Instruction, as a result, concentrates on the short answer mirrored in the standardized testing used to judge the success or failure of both institutions and individual students.

To reiterate, I admire the raw intelligence of the arguments advanced in the book.  I am on Senechal’s side, especially when it comes to taking on the educationists cited in the book.  However, this is an abstract treatise, and many teachers will find it difficult, if not impossible, to translate the author’s convictions into everyday application in the classroom.  I wish it were otherwise.

-A Graham Down.

Comment on this article
  • Dr. Joseph McCleary says:

    Senechal is on to something essential.
    Here’s one way to translate the author’s convictions into everyday application:

    For many years, I taught elementary school. I set aside a regular daily time period: absolute quiet for twenty minutes during which everyone read a book of their own choosing, myself included. No tests, no questions, nothing but the pleasure of reading. Students loved it. All looked forward to it. Many developed a love of reading and quiet thought that never left them.

  • Diana Senechal says:

    Thank you, Mr. Down, for this complimentary and insightful review.

    While I agree with most of your points, I do not consider my book an abstract thesis. It is full of concrete examples and explanations. It just isn’t a how-to book.

    Nor is it irrelevant to classroom practice. One elementary school teacher recently gave a lecture review of the book at a public library ( Others have written me letters.

    True, the book may not translate obviously or directly into concrete reform. But part of the problem with current school reform is its almost exclusive preference for the immediately comprehensible and applicable.

    Some of the best guidance and inspiration comes obliquely and slowly. A school system might have more to learn from Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory than from the latest pedagogical manual or packaged program. I know that idea sounds laughable, and laughable it may be. But it is also serious.

    All that said, I am honored by your appreciative reading of my book.


    Diana Senechal

  • Charles Cerf says:

    I haven’t read the book but must admit to an obsessive preoccupation with “the social aspect of a child’s development”. School should start at two or three with the aim of teaching children how to lead, follow, negotiate, and, in short, get along with others, including those who are older, younger, swifter or slower. One of the most pernicious results of the emphasis on multiple-choice testing is the premature concentration on learning numbers and letters, not to mention arithmetic and reading. It’s easy for children to learn to fail when they are simply not yet ready for academic skills.

    Quite likely Mr. Down’s and Ms. Senechal’s thoughts about “the social aspect” pertain to education of older children, who should have learned basic social skills much earlier. But if they are meant to apply to younger children, I must respectfully disagree.

  • junghi lee says:

    the failure of the American attempt of building a “post-structuralist” building (practice) on the “structuralist” foundation (philosophy) was utterly predictable, as Foucault (his archeology of knowledge) failed by applying his essentialist (empiricial-positivist) method to a structuralist goal. At least, foucault was honest to acknowledge his failure but then he unwarrantedly concluded that success is unattainable and therefore we all have to go back to empiricism as the only method we know, reminding me of the author of this book.

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