by Diana Senechal
“Discernment and the Public Sphere”
In her new book, Republic of Noise, long-time Core Knowledge Blog contributor Diana Senechal confronts a culture that has come to depend on instant updates and communication at the expense of solitude. “Schools emphasize rapid group work and fragmented activity, not the thoughtful study of complex subjects,” she writes. “The Internet offers contact with others throughout the day and night; we lose the ability to be apart, even in our minds. Yet solitude does not vanish; it is part of every life. It plays an essential role in literature, education, democracy, relationships, and matters of conscience,” says Senechal.
At age ten, in 1974, I traveled with my family to the Netherlands, where we were to spend a year (my parents were on sabbatical). We crossed the Atlantic on the Mikhail Lermontov, a Soviet cruise ship that had recently been converted from an ocean liner. It was my first time at sea, and the first moments were thrilling: pulling out of the New York harbor at sunset, with passengers cheering from the deck and others waving from land; watching the Statue of Liberty recede into the distance; feeling the rumble of the motor; and soon seeing nothing but waves upon waves.
I shared a cabin with my sister, Jenna. We had the run of the ship; no one worried about our whereabouts. There was a swimming pool, a lounge and dining area with a stage, an exercise room, a slot machine room, a gift shop with balalaikas and Matryoshka dolls, and a few canteens and bars. At night, the deck was aglow with lights; by day we could sometimes see dolphins leaping. At sunset, we would watch the changing colors over the sea and taste the salty chill; even the sounds grew darker as night fell.
On the second day of our voyage, when we were out on the deck, my parents struck up a conversation with the parents of a British family. There were five children: Anne, seventeen years old, John (fifteen), Ginny (ten), Diana (three), and David (eighteen months). Ginny and I became friends for the duration of the trip. We took lessons in Russian language, song, and dance—the crew kept us quite busy—and spent the rest of the time romping around. But I jump ahead.
While our parents were talking, I saw Anne walk away to the edge of the deck and lean over the railing. No one said anything about it for a few minutes, but then she started to lean farther. Her mother called her, and she ambled back in their direction, with a vague look in her eyes. As the trip progressed, I saw more hints of something unusual and precarious. She would walk away in the middle of conversation or give befuddling answers to questions. During the dance lessons, she would sometimes go in the wrong direction or leave the stage and wander around the hall. But while aloof and of her own world, she was never unkind. There was something captivating about her ways, so different from other people’s.
As our Russian song and dance performance approached, we all chose partners for the show. Anne was left without a partner; either she was the odd one out, or someone finagled her way out of dancing with her. Her distress was visible; she would walk around repeating mournfully, “Who will be my partner? Who will be my partner?” Ginny and I were already dance partners and didn’t want to change that, but we did want to find a partner for Anne. So we knocked on the cabin door of a woman in our class. The door opened; she stood tall before us, her long hair in a hurried bun with some wisps falling out. We explained the situation to her and asked whether she would be Anne’s partner, just for this occasion.
This woman (I’ll call her Mrs. Barrow) told us flat out that she wouldn’t do it and there was no point in pushing her. We stood in the hallway, pleading, telling her how much it would mean and how hard it was for Anne not to have a partner, but none of this moved her. “This is a free country,” she said, “and I have to consider my reputation.” In fact, we were on Soviet territory, by maritime law, so it may not have been the country she thought it was. I doubt, moreover, that her reputation would have been harmed if she had agreed to dance with Anne. Dancing with someone of the same sex was not the issue; most of the people in the dance class were female. Nor would anyone have thought badly of her for dancing with Anne in particular. Her response says something about how she perceived her country and her life. Americans often use the expression “free country”; it rolls off the tongue like a chocolate ball. Sometimes it has specific meaning; at other times it is a way of saying no. At other times it is a way of explaining things that would be difficult to explain otherwise.
In the end, it worked out somehow; Anne ended up with several dance partners (including Mrs. Barrow, if I am not mistaken). The performance was a great occasion; I had never imagined, before the trip, that I would one day be performing Russian dances and singing Russian songs out at sea. The crew gave us ample stage time; in addition to the singing and dancing, we had a talent show and costume contest. Anne, Ginny, Diana, Jenna, and I dressed up as Matryoshka dolls, with kerchiefs and rouged cheeks. Ginny’s father dressed up as a someone who had gotten seasick; he carried a giant blue pill, provoking a roar of laughter from the adults, who had been seasick for a great deal of the voyage. We sang “Kalinka” and another Russian song; for the talent show, we got to take turns at the microphone. Anne sang some songs and rattled off jokes, charming the audience.
I have often thought back on this experience—not with indignation at the woman who said no (she was within her rights, as she said), but with sorrow, bemusement, gratitude for the experience, and thoughts of the English family and how they are now. I recently made contact with Ginny, through the Internet; both parents have passed away, and Anne is doing well, living in sheltered accommodation and enjoying life. Ginny works in education management, as an advocate for arts education. The Mikhail Lermontov no longer crosses the seas; it hit rocks and sank near New Zealand in 1986.
If Mrs. Barrow was at fault, it is because she lacked discernment. For whatever reason, she mistook us and the very ground on which she stood. She responded to us as one might respond to aggressive political canvassers or missionaries, not as one might to two girls trying to help someone. While relying on the concept (or cliché) of a “free country,” she did not consider what that meant or where she actually was.
Of course, as the details of this event grow fuzzy over time, its symbolic significance increases—so it is possible that I would see it quite differently if I could replay it exactly. Yet, even with the distortions of memory, there is something monumental about that moment in the hallway of the Soviet ship, far out at sea. It ended happily, but there was a speck of tragedy in it all the same.
Discernment is the practice of distinguishing two similar things or recognizing something for what it is. It is not easily taught, nor does it necessarily transfer from one area to another. Someone with good character judgment may be unable to tell a good poem from a bad one, or a solid historical analysis from a shaky one. Someone with excellent business sense may fall for a medical fad or political ploy. Nonetheless, if one learns to make fine distinctions in one field, one becomes alert to the possibility of such distinctions elsewhere. Through ear-training of the mind, one may learn to guard against hasty judgments and false generalizations. In discernment there is also an element of courage: the willingness to look at something or someone, even when the thing or person causes discomfort. To look someone in the eye is to let down one’s own guard, to let one’s own flaws show.
To the extent that it can be taught, discernment relies on a degree of common ground. For example, students are much more likely to recognize the allegory in George Orwell’s Animal Farm if they have studied something of Russian and Soviet history; they are in a better position to distinguish Johann Sebastian Bach from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach if they have studied the works of both. Common knowledge provides a common language; when people are reasonably confident that they are talking about the same thing, they understand or can at least ask for clarification of each other’s terms. At the same time, an individual’s particular knowledge can light up the discussion; one student may have read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”; another might have advanced knowledge of harmony and counterpoint.
Thus, to teach discernment, schools should foster both common knowledge and individual interests. Finding the right proportion is a tricky matter. Many Americans are wary of a common curriculum, which they equate with homogeneous, “cookie-cutter” instruction and the imposition of a set of views. But diverse views and interests can thrive only when people have something to differ over.
In his 1902 essay “How the School Strengthens the Individuality of the Pupils,” educator William Torrey Harris wrote that recitations foster and develop individual thought. “All of the pupils,” he wrote, “concentrate their attention on the statements of the pupil who is reciting and on the cross-questioning of the teacher. It is a dialectic which calls for alertness and versatility of mind in the pupils who take part in it.” In an earlier essay, he wrote that “the pupil can, through the properly conducted recitation, seize the subject of his lesson through many minds. He learns to add to his power of insight the various insights of his fellow pupils.” The very idea of a recitation would be derided today as a form of “rote learning,” but his description makes it seem anything but rote. Harris assumed optimistically—perhaps too optimistically—that the students would all be concentrating intensely and trying to refine their understanding. Without such focus and desire, a recitation could easily turn dreary. But that is the case no matter what the approach. In a recitation, class discussion, or other format, the principle remains the same: through coming together over a subject, through straining to understand it better, students may find their individuality, even eccentricity.
It is not that American public schools lack any sort of common study; we have textbooks and the usually vague specifications of state standards. These half-measures have grown out of a longstanding resistance to common curriculum, yet they have come to define curriculum. Except where such textbooks and standards are of high quality, this bears little resemblance to a curriculum as it should be. A curriculum is an outline and sequence of the works, concepts, and skills that students should learn, along with a rationale. It should be flexible enough to allow the mind to play, yet specific enough to provide rich working material. Whether it exists at the school, district, or state level, it should do justice to the word. From there, one can determine the proper balance of common and individual learning.
Diana Senechal is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. This excerpt appears in her new book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, published by Rowman & Littlefield Education.