Friday, October 10, 2008

Peaceful Power Outage: Are We Losing Silence?

For about 75 minutes tonight, the power was out in my neighborhood. I enjoyed it. A brilliant moon rose through the trees, casting a bright shadow on the street and the back yard. I felt my way around to a dozen candles and lit them on the dining room table, the mantle, the kitchen counter, and my bedroom windowsill. The house was so silent: after today's cataclysmically scary stock market gyrations, the abrupt break from CNN, PBS, NPR, Wall Street, email, Facebook, blogging -- it was a relief.

Briefly, in the curious absence of news, I wondered if something apocalyptic might be happening. I filled up a pot with water and inventoried the canned goods and medicines I have on hand. I called Ted on my cell phone, realizing too late that it was down to 10 percent charge. We had enough time for Ted to assure me the world wasn't coming to an end -- at least not that he'd heard.

So I relaxed. Coming down the stairs holding a brass candlestick I've always loved, I talked to myself: though I've been sick lately, though the world is in turmoil, I'm basically doing okay. The silence afforded me that one brief moment: I'm okay.

I'm not sorry the power came back on, but I must admit that I could do without the loud commercial about the Sonic Scrubber and the raucous arguments about Sarah Palin and Barack Obama on Larry King that are hitting my eardrums. How hard it is to just turn off the cacaphony.

As it happened, the comp staff from UMF convened at my house this afternoon for one of our Friday social gatherings, and we'd considered these very issues. Today our catalyst article was a recent piece from The Atlantic by Nicholas Carr titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" We talked about how we've all become multi-taskers and that the experience of simply sitting still, deeply reading, is rarer and rarer. Carr says once he was "a scuba diver on a sea of words," and now he's more like a guy skimming over the surface on a jet ski. He cites a study suggesting "we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think." Carr reviews other technological innovations in history -- starting with Plato's suspicions of writing -- and taking a look at what happened to Nietzsche when he started using a typewriter. He notes how the development of clocks in the 14th century changed everything: "In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock."

My colleagues and I, leisurely sipping wine and snacking on little plates of fruit and cheese, declined to agree that "Google is making us stupid." We did agree that the way our students are experiencing the world -- and the way we ourselves, like Carr, are changing how we read -- suggests we need to consider and reconsider how we teach. Prodding our students into critical thinking from whatever texts they encounter remains the challenge -- and we figured teachers have been bemoaning their students' fumbling attempts at critical thinking for decades, if not centuries. Like us, our students have to learn how to sort through the noise.

Still, I do crave the silence; We'll never know the silence of the world as it used to be. I wish I had the chance to know that quiet -- how it might have been, four hundred years ago, say, to walk into the world at night, and to hear the sounds of that world: no motors, no jets, no trains, no sirens.

But I couldn't resist turning on CNN during the meeting to check the 4 p.m stock closing -- my friends tried to stop me! And when the power was out tonight, I could have read by candlelight. But feeling restless and at loose ends, I just stretched out on the couch and took a nap. The sound of the house woke me up first, the frig and furnace cranking rhythmically into action, and then the house lit up, the candlelight dwindling and insignificant in the bright glow of my conscientiously-installed fluorescent coils, and CNN blared back into the room.

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