Learn to Live in Silence

Jules Franco-

Recently an unusual event occurred in one of my classes. The professor asked a question, and for at least a minute no- body attempted to answer it. The silence was striking. It was not the kind of embarrassed silence that occurs when nobody in the class has done the assigned reading; rather, it was thoughtfulness manifest. The commentary that followed the initial pause was slow and considered. Instead of a series of successive comments that didn’t develop other points; students emphasized each other’s ideas and pushed them forward by asking further questions.

A large part of my secondary education was spent in Quaker school where silence is cherished. Once a week all students attended a Quaker meeting where they sat together in silence for forty-five minutes. When students felt particularly moved to speak, sometimes in response to a query stated at the beginning of the meeting, they could stand and do so. Students were instructed from an early age not to make “popcorn style” comments in Quaker meeting–meaning we had to wait at least a whole minute before speaking when someone else had just ended. At the time, I was often annoyed by this pause from my week. I didn’t enjoy taking forty-five minutes out of my day to just be, and was especially frustrated with the notion of the pause in between peoples’ thoughts. Along with my friends I grumbled about the inefficiency of the exercise.

Life at Davidson contains few pauses and is anything but silent. Overcommitted and highly ambitious students run around all day from class to club meetings to sports practices; it often feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything on your to-do list- let alone spend quality time with friends. We are also students here during a time of great transition for the college. As Davidson moves further into the twenty-first century, it, along with its peer institutions, struggle to answer questions of what inclusivity looks like, and how to remain grounded in tradition while innovating the liberal arts model. Across campus many organizations and individuals have conversations, often intense ones, to attempt to grapple with such topics. A conversation, however, is meant to provoke development of ideas and perspectives. People of opposing and even similar viewpoints can have their thoughts and logic pushed further through meaningful engagement with others; such engagement is listening exemplified in question-asking.

Unfortunately “conversations” on this campus often resemble debates. There is room for debate too, no doubt, but framing a debate as a conversation is dangerous because they don’t fulfill the same intellectual purpose. Debates pro- mote selective listening for the purpose of dismantling an opposing argument, but conversations promote total listening so different sides of issues can move from the purgatory of deconstructing a problem into developing creative solutions. Often I wonder what heated conversations on this campus would look like if they didn’t contain “popcorn style” comments.

The problem is that modern secondary education often rewards immediacy of response. Frequently students are rewarded for raising their hand first or finding the answer the quickest. Those who step down to let others speak or who pause be- fore they respond don’t receive participation points. Grading makes no room for such quiet facilitators. Even in daily life, busyness is glorified while taking a break is looked at as a weakness. Students, therefore, come to Davidson with this mentality deeply embedded.

A couple of years ago I went back to Quaker school to watch my sister graduate Middle School. There I attended my first Quaker meeting in four years. I had forgotten what a pause felt like, and felt moved to speak on its value. I hope that at Davidson we can start to seek pauses too, in our personal lives as well as in our conversations. Only this way can we hope to move forward; to push the change that will propel our college into a more considered future.

Jules Franco ’20 is an undeclared student from Brooklyn, New York. Contact her at jufranco@davidson.edu.