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Why Kids -- and Adults -- Need More Solitude

New York City public school educator Diana Senechal talks about the problems with our educational system, the meaning of solitude, and the dangers of immediacy.

Demand for remedial instruction in colleges is on the rise. About 75 percent of New York City freshmen attending community college last year needed remedial math, reading or writing courses. The organization that administers the ACT found that only one in four of 2010 high school graduates who took the ACT exam were college-ready in four key subjects areas: English, math, reading and science. Statistics like these are startling, as they not only reveal serious flaws in our educational system, but also raise questions as to how these students will fare in the future if they are lacking the knowledge and critical skills needed to succeed in college and beyond.

In her new book,  “The Republic of Noise,” New York City public school educator and curriculum advisor Diana Senechal argues that one reason for this problem is the students’ loss of solitude: the ability to think and reflect independently on a given topic. Schools have become more concerned with the business of keeping students busy in what Senechal deems is a flawed attempt to ensure student engagement. But as a result, students are not given the time and space to devote themselves completely to the study and understanding of one specific thing. It’s a need she finds reflected in our culture as a whole: We are a nation glued to smartphones and computer screens, checking email and Twitter feeds in our need to stay in some loop by reading and responding to rolling updates. Senechal is not advocating that we toss out our iPhones or unplug from social media, but rather that we think more slowly, give ourselves time for reflection — as such practice would only serve to enhance the very conversations new media and technology make possible.

Salon spoke to Senechal over the phone about the problems with our educational system, the meaning of solitude, and the dangers of immediacy.

What’s your definition of solitude?

The idea of solitude as an attribute of the mind goes back to antiquity. The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus distinguished between a negative sort of isolation (helplessness, removal from others) and the strength that comes from relying on one’s own mental resources. Quintilian wrote about the importance of overcoming distractions through mental concentration and separation. “In the midst of crowds, therefore, on a journey, and even at festive meetings,” he wrote, “let thought secure for herself privacy.”

Solitude is not about being in a hut out in the woods or being out in the desert or living without other people around. I define solitude as a certain apartness that we always have, whether we’re among others or not. It is something that can be practiced — maybe to think just on one’s own, even when in a meeting or in a group and so forth — but that also has been nurtured by time alone. So there’s an ongoing solitude that’s always there, and there’s also a shaped or practiced solitude, which requires both time alone with things, to be thinking about things and working on things, and time among others when you nonetheless think independently.

You’re critical of certain educational philosophies in practice in schools today, especially the workshop model. Why?

The workshop model has an emphasis on group work and a de-emphasis on teacher presentation. What happens is the teacher is supposed to give a mini-lesson which is about 10 minutes long. From there students are supposed to work in groups on something related to that mini-lesson, sometimes independently, but most of the time in groups. At the end they are supposed to share about what they learned. This was mandated across the board, across the grades and subjects, in many schools. Every lesson is supposed to follow a workshop model. (Of course some schools were a little bit more flexible about this than others.)

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