Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Silent But Deadly

For those not otherwise connected to the world of adolescent education, today is the GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) Day of Silence, a student-led day of action where those who support making anti-LGBT bias unacceptable in schools take a day-long vow of silence to recognize and protest the discrimination and harassment -- in effect, the silencing -- experienced by LGBT students and their allies.

And what does the Day of Silence look like here, at the boarding school? Though numerically-speaking few kids participate, it does seem a bit quieter out there. The campus teems with sunlight and small pods of students sitting and staring at each other. In the distance, non-participating jock-types yell happily from the Lacrosse field, and never the twain shall meet.

Somehow, this doesn't seem like what GLSEN had in mind.

I should admit I have mixed feelings about this now-yearly phenomenon. On the plus side, I think the fundamental concept is sound: silence is an especially powerful way to make a statement of support, and the choice of silence to raise awareness about the silencing of others has a semiotic elegance which appeals to my media literate mind. This is, I suppose, especially true in the context of school. Silence in a space in which class participation is often considered one of the signs of greatness is more powerful than it might be in other spaces; absence of language is more obvious here than, say, silence on the subway, or in line at McDonalds, might turn out to be.

But on the other hand, in that context, silence is an academic disaster. The modern contructivist mode demands participatory, student-owned classroom experience; the refusal to participate is a neat turn-around, I suppose, but it gives the class back to the teacher, forcing us to lecture where before we would have pushed and prodded. The Day of Silence may be an interesting footnote at the beginning of class, but once the moment of recognition passes, the students remain silent, electing to trade that moment for period after period of passivity, and I'm not convinced that unintended consequence doesn't set the stage for more loss than gain.

Of course, in a worst case scenario, both teacher and students decide to be silent, and what was once a class turns into an exercise in awareness that drags out far longer than necessary. What, do we all sit at our desks with our heads down for an hour and a half? Some teachers here who would otherwise decide to be silent themselves have decided to show movies all day, making the silence of their students invisible -- that, alone, says all it needs to about the potential pitfalls of the silent protest in the classroom context. Others have decided to cancel class, which, obviously, keeps the silence from being heard or seen at all, and thus makes the Day of Silence counterproductive -- for what good is a day of silence if it's spent in your dorm room, playing video games?

While this might seem like a win for the GLSEN crowd, then, I think the net result of this movement can at worst be to pit the anti-hate self against the academic self, exacerbating the already-frustrating and artificial divide between learning-mode and social-mode which, ironically, blogs and other social networking software have begun to break down. Maybe the point here is merely that silence only works when the world is loud around you, and waiting for you to speak. Once a culture begins to accept your cause, though, silence only keeps us from talking about why we're silent.

Or maybe the quietude is the result of the manure mix that was spread across the campus greenery yesterday; I know feces is supposed to make the best fertilizer, but most of us are afraid to open our mouths and breath it all in.

Anyway, something sure stinks around here.

posted by boyhowdy | 2:05 PM |

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