A rather negative view of silence tends to dominate these days. Thanks, in part, to the child-protection industry, silence is seen as a sign that something is being covered up. People ‘suffer in silence’ and what they suffer is oppression, abuse, bullying, pain and shame. As a consequence, there has been much noise about silence. It’s the noise of people crying out for dialogue and consultation.
Our generally overanxious approach towards children has meant education has been at the centre of this trend. Teachers are confused and insecure about the role of silence in the classroom. They worry that a quiet classroom is not going to be looked on favourably during an Ofsted inspection, given the current ‘child-centred’ emphasis on collaborative group work which, naturally, raises the noise level.
However, in some schools a certain kind of silence is now being promoted. Meditation and mindfulness are gaining popularity, reflecting a discomfort with silence imposed by a shushing teacher, and informed by the idea that today’s children – supposedly more vulnerable to a fast-paced, stressful world – need to learn the power of silence as a self-management technique. No doubt influenced by workplaces such as the Bank of England, Google and the Houses of Parliament promoting its benefits, and with the backing of trusts set up by film director David Lynch and actress Goldie Hawn, mindfulness is a renewed attempt by certain schools to introduce periods of silence. Anthony Seldon, headteacher of a prestigious British private school, Wellington College, has stated that regular mindfulness sessions take place for his pupils. He recommends that they should take place in all schools.
During mindfulness sessions, students are encouraged to reflect on themselves and their immediate surroundings. There is an emphasis on becoming aware of our basic physiological functions, focusing on the heartbeat or breathing, or on the natural surroundings. Another technique sees students encouraged to think of themselves as being a small part of the wider world, with the noisiness of the rest of the world emphasised by silence. Silence is supposed to slow people down, and this is seen as a good thing in a frenetic world. Proponents of mindfulness argue that resisting our tendency to ruminate helps to lower stress.
The outcome of this rehabilitated view of silence is that silence is used in schools to focus on human insignificance, insubstantiality, and a reduction of human experience to basic physicality. As a result, the pupil is encouraged to let time and the world flow past without getting involved in any energetic activity such as judging or discriminating. Interestingly, the Wellington College website talks about mindfulness as helping pupils to focus on what is unfolding in the present moment and describes it as ‘the simple (yet difficult) practice of cultivating non-judgemental awareness’. The emphasis is on being in the world rather than judging and acting upon it. This kind of silence is used to calm pupils down, to help them behave less aggressively and fit in. Rather than the traditional focus of silence in schools, which was on education and getting down to work, mindfulness focuses on behaviour control within the school setting.