Practicing Silence

Originally posted on September 26, 2017, by Amanda Proietti, Academic Dean & Grade 4: English

At our opening school ceremony, I urged students in grades 4-12 to spend time in silence every day. With the presence of music and news or audiobooks streaming through our ipods and phones and computers, and music in supermarkets, elevators, waiting rooms, and while on hold, we have to work hard to find silence. Few of us succeed. And I worry about the implications of that.

I worry about it for several reasons. One is that we have reduced music to wallpaper, to mere background noise, and I think music deserves better than that. Another is that most students perform worse on cognitive tasks when they are listening to music. And though there is some evidence to suggest that extroverts perform better in the presence of background noise such as TV or chatter, introverts perform significantly worse (Furnham and Bradley, 1997), and we don't need one more way to put introverts at a disadvantage. We also don't need any more ways to fragment our already restless attention, jumping from texts to emails to Facebook posts to TV screens to a textbook. We need mental rest.

A recent study points to a connection between silence and permanent growth of neurons in the brain (Kirste, 2013). We have heard about the beneficial effects of silence on blood pressure. Such medical and cognitive effects of silence are wondrous, but what interests me more is how silence aids us in forming our personalities. It is in quiet that we hear our own voice, that we ponder and muse and give thoughts space to develop, that we confront the less attractive aspects of our personality and work to refine them. I don't know that we can know who we are unless we learn that in silence. It is the source of our strength and authenticity.

Can parents and teachers find space in the day to cultivate silence for ourselves and our children? Could we have silent car rides or walks in the neighborhood or chores or crafts or homework performed in amiable, companionable (not rigidly enforced) silence? In moments of high drama or tension when we lose touch with ourselves, can we resist reacting with torrents of words but find space for silence, too?

If, as a community, we could undertake to find periods of silence in every day, would our younger students become more imaginative and resourceful, our middle-schoolers more accepting and confident, and our high-schoolers more optimistic and discerning? Would we adults find ourselves calmer and clearer headed?

To find out, what do we have to lose but noise?