We've discussed the challenges of group work often here at ISW, with many emphasizing that the heavily socially networked students of today often gravitate toward collaborative learning. But does philosophical understanding also require an ability to work in solitude — to be alone with one's own thoughts? One worry is that the technologically-induced absence of solitude makes introspection and true engagement with texts impossible. Deresiewicz:
And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing "in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures," "bait[ing our] hooks with darkness." Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The Internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world — that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity. This is not reading as Marilynne Robinson described it: the encounter with a second self in the silence of mental solitude. But we no longer believe in the solitary mind.
Deresiewicz wonders if the modern university has too readily fostered this aversion to solitude, to the detriment of the students they claim to serve:
To hold oneself apart from society, is to begin to think one's way beyond it. Today, of course, universities do everything they can to keep their students from being alone, lest they perpetrate self-destructive acts, and also, perhaps, unfashionable thoughts. But no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude. "The saint and poet seek privacy," Emerson said, "to ends the most public and universal."So: Have students lost their ability to live in their own minds? And, conceding that the epistemology of philosophy is largely discursive and social, to what extent is that ability needed to get the full value of the philosophical classroom experience? My particular concern is that one of the goals of philosophical education (and liberal education, more generally) is to help students develop self-understanding and an authentic intellectual stance. Might the presence of so much technology and connectivity put these goals out of reach?