Silence and Leftist Professors

No, I’m not talking about silent leftist professors.  Indeed, most professors – myself included – have trouble staying silent whether they are on the left, right, or anyplace else (I’m not a big fan of the left-right spectrum, btw). 

I’m talking about two separate but interesting posts by Thomas C. Reeves.  I don’t really know who Reeves is, and I don’t remember ever having come across any works by him until today.  But one piece by him on why professors tend to be on the left is making its way around the internet.  It is worth reading if you like this genre.  It brought to mind Robert Nozick’s own contribution to the debate, “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” 

I was actually more interested in another post by Reeves which talks about silence.  Reeves argues that “people all over the West and industrialized Asia today, perhaps especially the young, cannot abide silence” but that “In fact, silence is necessary for many achievements in civilized society, especially meaningful and thoughtful study (as opposed to mere memorization). Concentrated minds need to focus without interruption.”  He ends with his approval of the Vancouver-based Right to Quiet Society’s move to recognize “the right to quiet as a basic human right.” 

I’m not sure there is a basic right to quiet, though the common law gives property owners the right to the “quiet enjoyment” of their property and thus to be free of nuisances, including sounds (and yes, I understand that “quiet enjoyment” means a heck of a lot more too). 

But more importantly, Reeves raises the basic problem of being surrounded by so much noise.  Indeed, the modern world is so noisy that it is hard to think – which some people would say is entirely the point.  Noise allows us to escape or be distracted from our innermost thoughts and questions, many of which are uncomfortable or even frightening the more and deeper we think about them. 

But despite the escapism noise allows – and sometimes we do benefit from this, I think we would be rewarded if we found more quiet time and quiet places to think and also just to relax.  Noise can certainly interrupt thinking.  But I also find too much constant noise to be anxiety producing and destructive of true relaxation.  This is one of the reasons I love getting outside of cities and suburbs and into the country.  And since cars are one of our biggest sources of noise, I think that solving the problem of auto emissions is only half of the battle in terms of dealing with their negative externalities.  So, for those entrepreneurs out there, find a way to cut auto noise (which is mostly tire/road noise) and you’ll be doing us all a big favor.

4 thoughts on “Silence and Leftist Professors

  1. I think what you said about noise as a distraction may be the core of the common discomfort with silence.

    As a Quaker, one of the things I treasure most about the Religious Society of Friends is how important silence is. For “traditional” Quakers, it is the form of worship. The ease with which Quakers fall into silence under almost any circumstances (including very serious or heated discussions) is almost uncanny, and certainly not something I find elsewhere in my life. (Nor is it particularly natural to me!)

    I encountered a particularly striking example of this early in my association with the Society, when I attended a large gathering of Quakers (the Friends General Conference). The program noted that there would be a short period of silence during each meal, signaled by someone raising their hand. At the first lunch I attended, there were perhaps 500 people in the cafeteria (some waiting in line, some on their way to find a place to sit, some at table, some cleaning up or one their way out) when the first person raised her hand–and no more than 15-20 seconds later, if that, there was total silence.

    1. I’ve always quite admired Quaker comfort with silence, and the space it provides for quiet reflection. I wish my students could appreciate this – it is so odd to walk into the library and find students attempting to read and study with headphones on (and no, I’m not old enough for my views on this to be simply a reflection of age and a disdain for the ways of youth – I thought this practice was suboptimal even when I was 16 and we were still using Walkmen). How does one tackle a complicated text on ethics with Rage Against the Machine blaring in your head at the same time (and I actually really like RATM’s music, though not their political views)?

      1. I share your suspicion of such “multitasking.” As Lord Chesterfield said:

        “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”

        There has been a great deal of research published lately about human multitasking that casts doubt on its effectiveness. This essay (http://www.thenewatlantis.com/docLib/20080605_TNA20Rosen.pdf), which I just skimmed briefly after finding it by Googling “multitasking neurology attention” seems to supply a thoughtful overview. (It’s where I found that quote.)

        However, I must say that years ago, during the (collaborative) writing of a series of science fiction novels that were published by Tor Books, I found music quite helpful. But that’s “output.” I don’t find it helpful for “input.”

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