The Fortress of Solitude, Where Art Thou?

Now I’ve been happily connected on-line for almost two decades now. I love being able to write emails, posts, tweets, and status updates and love to read everyone else’s.  Yesterday, as usual, I was up early. Someone on facebook wondered about this and we had a friendly little thread of comments before moving off to our days. So there is  Virginia Heffernan in today’s NYTimes considering the art of the status update — the clever one versus the lame one.  Those elegant little tidbits we have to couch in 140 characters (that is the twitter limit) or less.  And it is all about connection, about social networking, about others.

What I think is less considered, especially among educators who are excited about these new technology tools, is the importance of solitude.  Being someone who needs a lot of it (a quirk of the introvert), I feel strongly that I need to train my students in the art of being alone even as I train them in the art of being together.  And so I appreciated Neil Swidey’s Boston Globe article, “The End of Alone.” While that title sounds a bit emphatic I think he has some good points in the piece, points that reinforce things I’ve been thinking about already.

For example, I constantly wonder what being a Peace Corps volunteer today is like. When I was in Sierra Leone in the md-70s our only contacts with home were with bi-weekly letters (and since they saved them, I’ve still got the ones I wrote my parents and grandmother).  No phone so I did not make a single phone call in two years.  Now I’m guessing calls are constant, email and twitter and facebook — all going on to keep you connected.

And because I think it is so important I do what I can to train my students to be alone.  Of course they can’t be literally alone in our overcrowded school, but I can insist on an intellectual solitude.  I do this by requiring them to spend whole periods writing or reading without any interaction with anyone else.  I don’t talk to them while this is happening and they aren’t allowed to talk to each other either. If they are writing, I might wander around the room peeking at what they are doing, but usually I don’t because I don’t want to distract them, I want them to live alone with their work. To tolerate the lack of instant feedback.  To consider the work, the book they are reading, the story they are writing,  on their own.

I suspect that I’d be a lonely girl if there was no online world for me.  Being able to connect intellectually with other likeminded folk has been fantastic for me. But I still need my solitude — time when I’m off line, ruminating, mulling things over. (Right now I’m lame and can’t run or walk which is driving me crazy — those are my favorite times of solitude and I hope to get them back soon. Soon.)  In education, especially those who are eager to use new technologies, it seems to be so much about social networking, about connecting.  Where, I sometimes wonder, is the purposeful disconnect?


Filed under In the Classroom, Teaching

5 responses to “The Fortress of Solitude, Where Art Thou?

  1. I just blogged about a similar article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The End of Solitude. There’s something in the air… perhaps we’re just getting overloaded on connection?


  2. I love my alone time; and I love that social networking means I can connect with people in a way that is easy for me to turn on and off. And one of my better traits, I think, is the ability to work despite distraction (other people talking, phone calls, etc.)

    And I agree with you on the necessity to work alone, etc. The idea of consciously teaching that interests me.

    That said, I wonder, from a historical perspective, whether solitude isn’t both a modern concept and one that only few could afford?

    Or to pick up on the Peace Corps — its not that you werent’ connected, it is who you had the connections with (those in Sierre Leone as opposed to your family). When I visited Europe in college/law school, pre cell phones & calling cards, there was limited contact home; several years ago, even before all the email etc, I saw that change while i chaperoned a high school French trip and all the students had calling cards to call home frequently.

    Much to think about!


  3. Lazygal, thanks for the tip. That is an interesting article too.

    Liz, I suspect you may right about this. Fairrosa and I also have discussed this and perhaps if I had been in a noisy, busy family, having to work in the midst of energy I’d be more comfortable doing it now. And I think of those monks and other sorts who would purposely not talk or otherwise isolate themselves for solitude.

    But I do think there is something profoundly different in being able to travel to isolated areas today yet still be in touch with family back home. I definitely know that my life in Sierra Leone would have been hugely different if I’d been able to talk to my parents about much of what happened. But being sick (very sick with malaria) with no parents around sure was part of my having to grown-up. Even college is so different when kids are able to stay so tied to old friends and family. Very different world indeed.


  4. Ann DeBaun-Gould

    Hi Monica – For some reason I thought of you and Susan recently and just found you in the cyber world. Greetings to you both from an old DFHS chum.

    Funny, I was just talking to a friend who is a public school teacher in NYC, wondering about the future of education with the dawning of what feels like new possibilities and huge challenges in the Obama age. I ran an after school arts enrichment program out in Westchester until recently. I think the after school time was one of the few times the students had some solitude (albeit public) was working on a project like describe with your students. What would you recommend to the President if you could get his ear?
    Delighted to find you, say hello to your sister, and I hope you can get moving soon!


  5. Donald Isler

    Another very good article, Monica! (Maybe I should check your blog more often!) Spending alone and/or quiet time is something people don’t think and talk about much though it’s obviously important, also for musicians and our students.


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