I was struck by the thought contained in a recent opinion piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Discussing a familiar topic—the prevalence of online networking among teenagers—Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education history at New York University, took a different tack. Unlike many who either praise this digital activity or warn of its external dangers, Zimmerman brought up a rarely mentioned subject: the loss of solitude.
“Once you’re ‘always on,’ as the kids describe it,” wrote Zimmerman, “you’re never alone.”
His mention of “solitude” has a salutary effect: It gives me hope that we will make our way through online and offline frenzy, that quiet thought has not died. It is strange that we hear so little about solitude in the schools—that there would be so much emphasis on socialization and so little on aloneness. Isn’t it clear that both are needed for learning and for life?
After all, solitude is with us no matter what we do, and it can give us great strength. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote of “a solitude which each and every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea; the solitude of self.” Yet our culture seems to prize incessant interaction.
Online social networks are not the only forces tearing away at solitude. Schools bombard students and teachers with the rhetoric and practice of group work. Students must learn “communication and collaboration,” according to proponents of so-called 21st-century skills. Teachers must “facilitate,” according to proponents of the workshop model. State standards include a substantial social component in every subject; one could easily have a “standards based” math lesson with no math at all, only group processes.
Schools seem to have forgotten that students need ample quiet time for thinking, reading, and puzzling over problems. Even a whole-class discussion can be much more quieting and contemplative than a room buzzing with little groups. It is not at all good to be visibly “engaged” at every moment; one also needs room to collect one’s thoughts and separate oneself from one’s peers. Why is this not recognized?
By no means is solitude easy. People flee it for a reason. Emily Dickinson refers to solitude as “That polar privacy / A soul admitted to itself— / Finite infinity.” Sometimes it seems too much to bear. But if we are willing to stick it out, we will likely find ideas and emotions we didn’t know we had. We may be overcome by a song, poem, painting, or history book. We may find ourselves able to solve a logic problem or perfect a musical phrase. We may even find friendship, for the quiet allows us to understand ourselves and others. Solitude can be painful, but there is more pain in what Zimmerman calls the “insatiable” need to hang out. Excessive socialization destroys true relationships; if we are never alone, we have nothing to bring to each other.
Solitude should not become a fad; that would make some of us wish we had never brought it up at all. The shift toward solitude should be subtle, not screeching. Don’t abandon group work, but take it down from its altar. Make room for quiet thought and give students something substantial to think about. The children will respond. Also, recognize teaching as a thinking profession. There is no reason for teachers to sit in groups filling out Venn diagrams during professional-development sessions when they could be doing something more interesting on their own.
I run two girls’ literature clubs at the elementary school where I teach. One group has been reading A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Some of the girls relate strongly to the thoughtful young heroine, Sara Crewe. They know what it means to be different, to stand apart, to have a life of the mind. Many of the girls have special reading places: nooks and stairwells, forts made of blankets and chairs, and the great classic hideout, the place under the covers with a flashlight. Like Sara, they know how jarring it is to be interrupted when reading. They find the places where they may read without pause.
Sometimes it seems that these secret places will be forgotten, and that we will not even have the minds for them, let alone the words. We will be so busy with “21st-century skills” that we will lose the tough, timeless skill of being alone. But the very word “solitude” changes this picture. Just seeing the word in a newspaper, I know that not all is lost: that somewhere a fort is lighting up, and no one will intrude.
A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week as Solitude: A Flashlight Under the Covers