"A fine and private place..."

Last semester while reading Emerson, I asked my students a simple question: what is the longest period of time you have spent alone? The answer in most cases was only a few hours, at best a long afternoon. Emerson, of course, recommended the practice, and I have always been a big fan of it, but few of my students share my tastes. Many find the prospect of being alone abhorrent.

Then again, there’s being alone and there’s really being alone. Just recently the New Yorker ran an article detailing the psychological devastation of solitary confinement for prisoners, and I recall once seeing a film about a man who circumnavigated the earth alone in a sailboat. Watching successive snippets of his video-logged diary was like watching a time-elapsed record of progressive dementia. Loneliness is a lot like Scotch: one drink is lovely, a second means a hangover, and a third—well, a third is seldom a good idea.

I have my limits, of course, but on the whole I enjoy moderate amounts of solitude. A little while alone forces you back upon yourself. Like a prisoner or the miscreant toddler in time out, you can’t easily distract yourself from your predicament. You have a tendency to be more honest with yourself when there's no one to lie to. Indeed, there's nothing better for me than travelling alone to someplace I’ve never been. I can be my old cynical self again and revel in my own gloominess and self-pity without fear of how it must appear to others. It doesn’t seem so odd to go hours and even days without speaking to anyone, or to be sullen and introspective. Who would notice? I have a vivid memory of once crossing a street in Prague. I had been in Europe for almost six weeks wandering about, and it suddenly occured to me that none of the earth's billions of people had any idea where I was or how to reach me. I was surrounded by people but utterly alone.

I've been wondering if solitude might be a useful educational strategy since that conversation in class about Emerson last semester. Religious orders use it, and a jail cell has proven edifying to figures as varied as Boethius and Malcolm X. I wonder, too, if my students’ fear of being alone is in anyway related to the advent of cell phones, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter and the like. It is rare today for them to be incommunicado like I was crossing that Czech street.

A colleague of mine holds that the ideal educational institution would be in the middle of nowhere without any internet access, cell phones, campus activties or even a department of Student Life. There would only be a cluster of classrooms, some isolated single-occupant cabins for students, a well-stocked library and miles of empty forest in all directions.


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