Shimer College

April 22, 2013

The World is Noisy and So Am I

I find a lot of books in odd places, including on the streets, and in Goodwill stores, and in bookstores, and in the sharing libraries of the places I live. And today, I am writing about a paradoxically wonderful book called In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise by George Prochnik.

This is a book about searching for silence; and thus, paradoxically, it is a book that devotes a lot of attention to noise. Noise pollution (and attempts to address it), noisy trains and the near ubiquitousness of headphones form which leak louder and louder music as we all… search for silence? Or, at least, try to block out the distractingly noisy world within which we live. 

Prochnik, a descendant of James Jackson Putnam of fame witin the history of psychology, lives in Brooklyn and writes books. And, living in Brooklyn is not exactly silent. So, he goes in pursuit of it in various ways – from traveling to a Trappist monastery to reading scientific literature, to identifying pocket parks near where he works to explore in search of a moment’s peace (aka a bit of quiet) and visiting Gallaudet to investigate the notion of Deaf Architecture. Of course, nowhere is it entirely silent, but quieter moments allow him to hear the unexpected – birds and church bells, and other aspects of the world within which he lives. (And, indeed, we all live.) He becomes fascinated by the notion that it is clearly bad for us to create so much noise – we are increasingly unable to hear as we age, and the situation deteriorates quite quickly today in large measure because we are exposing ourselves to such high levels of noise, often voluntarily. 

Why is this relevant?

Well, it is not unrelated to the notions of bewilderment with which I began this blog, or of pausing (slowness) which I have also addressed.

First: Prochnik is bewildered in a particularly fruitful way that leads him to reflect in very interesting ways on his topic(s).

Second, and more importantly, perhaps: Listening is one of the skills, I would argue and I think faculty/facilitators would agree, required to think. And, it is a key part of the sort of dialogical education offered at Shimer. Listening, perhaps, is really all about distinguishing meaning from noise, and thus in some sense about silence. I think. (…and I say that as someone who is rarely silent.) 

Reading the book teaches one about why malls are so darn noisy (of course, they think it makes us buy more – and a whole new profession within the marketing world has emerged to create the “soundscapes” of consumerism), the notion of noise maps and the entanglements of public policy around noise, and a lot about how our ears work (and do not).

Perhaps my favorite parts – the part that really shifted me – was the discussion of Deaf Architecture. The openness of the world enabling people to see each other to speech is a very intriguing one for developing new notions of listening and hearing. 

So: is one of the unsung outcomes of a liberal education at the individual level the capacity to listen? To distinguish meaning from noise? And, is it more then utilitarian? Is one of the unsung public outcomes the capacity to create a world with less noise pollution?

(It is, one discovers, responsible for an enormous amount of our health concerns – and more.) Hmmm.