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The Rest is Silence (Head’s blog, April 2018)

Posted on 20 April 2018

The Today programme this morning compared the silence of the British Library’s old womb-like reading room to the incessant buzz of the new British Library work areas. It got me thinking.

Has there ever been a more important time for our institutions: schools, churches, libraries (those that still exist) to make space for silence? And has it ever been harder to accomplish in the incessant buzzing and bleating of our digital world? All religions recognise the value of the ‘unignorable silence/brewed God knows how long’ [Larkin] but how many churches or temples or mosques can now routinely provide it?  They are often locked during the day, and rarely achieve this kind of silence when open. I recall in February my first visit to the Sistine Chapel and the bellowing by a harassed priest in the Sistine Chapel for ‘Silenzia’ to the hordes of chattering tourists. But if we cannot find now the ‘silence of the city when it pauses’, perhaps it can still be found in schools.

For in the exam hall silence does still reign. It has a weird charm. There are just tiny noises; the breathing of examinees, the occasional shuffle or cough and the intense scratchings of pen on paper. You can almost hear brains synapses connecting. Exam room silence minimises the possibility of cheating, but also allows for the most productive intellectual thought. For it is in silence that we find the finest focus, the most eloquence and the best ideas.

Shakespeare’s ‘sessions of sweet silent thought’ are balm for the soul and rest for the senses. Accessing some of the calm that comes with silence is no bad thing for schools in the summer term and for all revisers. Like many schools St Albans High School have created space for silent revision every evening in our library. But frankly, this is not a luxury but essential in the face of newly rigorous A-levels and GCSEs where the amount of content to be learned has massively increased. We’re in a new era of old-style memorisation. The days of superficially gulped bite-sized learning for modular exams is over.

Pupils again are honing the skills of mass memorising and they need schools and homes to provide quiet space and time to do it. So my top tip for parents with revising teens is this. Alongside all those post-it notes and cups of tea offer them the great gift of silence. For the best readiness and the best rest is indeed found in silence.

Jenny Brown

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