Solitude, Leadership, Concentration and Twitter

Solitude and Leadership, the title of William Deresiewicz’s much circulated American Scholar article intones.   Solitude and Leadership:  one cannot help but lower one’s voice and slow one’s enunciation as the title is enunciated.

This piece has been shared with me by many, the estimable David Brooks recently cited it as a top essay of the year: there is indeed much wisdom to be found in it.    But before I relay that wisdom, a caveat:  Deresiewicz creates a false dichotomy which simply isn’t supportable: solitude and concentration are valuable elements of leadership and independent thought, but they do not exclude, in any defensible way,  the possibility or even as I would argue the probability that there is great parallel and synergistic value derived from an immersion in the crowd and the stimulating, creative, multitudinous energy of our contemporary Forum, Twitter.

The piece, which indeed everyone should read and discuss, is in two parts.First, Deresiewicz rightly and compellingly lays out the deep vaccum of leadership we have in our nation today, something I know many of my associates and colleagues in educational innovation will concur with: we need educational leadership which is anything but complacent, but is independent and courageous enough to stand tall and say firmly that education must change.

For too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

Deresiewicz is profound too in his definition of leadership, and I think that I speak for many educators and educational innovators when I say he is dead-right: leadership is derived from independence of mind, and our passion and our calling is to educate independent, creative, critical thinkers.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

What makes a thinker—and a leader—is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself.  And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors… there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.

In the second half, the essay’s project is to explore a question which is also important to educators: “how do you learn to do that?  How do you learn to think?”  His answer, however, and regrettably, is one part prophetic and one part polemic, and I believe that in his need to launch a rhetorical bomb his thinking misses a critical step in a deeply disappointing way.    First the prophetic:

Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself.

You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.

It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise.

So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better.

Powerful, meaningful, significant, and accurate.  Much of my most important thinking happens when I am alone: hiking, cycling, in the shower, just sitting in my office staring into space.   Absolutely, a room of our own, whether literally or mentally metaphorically, is a prerequisite for original thought.

But, and I feel like shouting, there is no reason a thinker can’t or shouldn’t also be fruitful by engagement with the swirl of the intellectual currents flowing around him or her.   Deresiewicz can’t seem to abide the simple concept of both/and in this part of his essay, and instead falls into the failure of either/or binary thinking.   Here, it seems, his lovely and philosophical essay becomes nothing other than an under-informed, narrow-minded, un-original and nasty polemic about Twitter and Facebook.

You simply cannot do [concentration] in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

Maybe many can’t sustain concentration this way (some can), but the two different modes don’t have to happen at the same time.   A creative thinker can spend many hours a day doing exactly these things, and then retreat into moments, minutes, or hours alone.

[Concentration] means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like dutyhonor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

The answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within—without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.

These are  just unsupportable assertions.   On what possible basis can he successfully establish that we should and can only find wisdom, or independence of thought, or philosophical understanding of our lives, by retreating to an intellectual island?

Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself.

Has Deresiewicz considered the history of philosophy at all before writing these sentences?  Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato lived, thrived and flourished within the intensely stimulating intellectual environment of the Athenian polis, engaged in discourse and debate with the Sophists each and every day.  Hume and Rousseau had their Enlightenment coffeehouses, Hegel and Heidegger their German universities, Sartre and Camus their Parisian cafes.

Let’s turn for a moment to Steven Johnson and his wonderful recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From.   [My review of Good Ideas and its applications to education is here].  Again and again and again Johnson documents, in a remarkably comprehensive compendium, that the original thought that innovation demands is highly socially situated, is highly collaborative. Our most original thinkers surely needed and used solitary time and concentration, but only and always, Johnson establishes resoundingly, in tandem with highly social, interactive, immersion in the crowd.

It used to be, Johnson documents powerfully, that innovation and original thought could only happen in the intense crucible of our largest urban sites: Athens, Rome, Florence, Paris, London, Berlin.   But now, amazingly and wonderfully, we have an on-line forum which can match the stimulation of those urban fora, and its name is Twitter (and facebook and a dizzying array of other Web 2.0 sites).

I look forward to speaking to my students and citing Deresiewicz’s wise words about the essential quality of independent thought for true and effective leadership, the leadership our nation does indeed deeply need, but I will only do so while also summoning the spirit of Socrates in the Stoa, urging our students to discover and develop their creative and original thought from the intellectual stimulation which can best be found today amidst the fruitful ferment of our transformative technological cosmopolis that is the world wide web.

4 Comments

  1. David Truss said:

    Perhaps your title could have been:
    “Solitude, Leadership, Concentration and a Community of Learners”

    The reality is that to many the concept of Twitter is still that it is about telling the world that you are meeting up with friends or that you are going to the dentist. They don’t see it as a ‘learning conversation’ or a place where you find interesting articles that lead you on a web of hyperlinks and networked ideas. It is the Socratic conversation before the quiet contemplation.

    I followed a link yesterday, watched a video, and spent about 4 hours writing a post in solitude afterwards. Without my online connections, I would have been uninspired.

    But to those inside Plato’s cave, those who only see Twitter as a single dimensional shadow of conversations and connections… to those Twitter is a distraction. For me it is a learning opportunity, and a learning network. So, I have to agree with you Jonathan, “On what possible basis can [Deresiewicz] successfully establish that we should and can only find wisdom, or independence of thought, or philosophical understanding of our lives, by retreating to an intellectual island?” I’d say on the basis that he’s stuck in the cave, looking at shadows.

    January 4, 2011
    • David, your title is a fine alternative. It better captures the broader idea that I advocate for and believe in.

      That said, I hoped this title might be a bit more catchy and current, and, more importantly, the article I am replying with is about Twitter; if you read the second half closely, it begins to appear the author is obsessed with Twitter and its danger.

      I greatly appreciate your picking up with my metaphor and taking it into Plato’s cave: how well that metaphor captures the negative aspects of the “intellectual island” Deresiewicz seems to demand of thinking. (Some of my very favorite memories of ten years’ teaching was teaching the entirety of the Republic to a seminar of high school seniors!).

      Funny coincidence: in my initial brainstorming about responding to this piece, I had intended to cite as an example of independent and non-complacent thinking your recent, excellent post, Question Everything. Love that post.

      Looking forward to future conversations here and elsewhere, David.
      Jonathan

      January 5, 2011

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