Notes on: Zembylas, M and Michaelides, P. (2004) 'The sound of silence in pedagogy'.  Educational Theory, 54 (2): 193 -210.

Dave Harris

How should we interpret silence in the classroom?  Is it a political stand, or shyness?  Should we not respect silence as a respect for self and other?  The ability to silence people is still seen as a necessary disciplinary act, but silence also allows time for reflection.

Lots of writers and philosophers have seen silence as a positive phenomenon, not just the absence of speech.  It could be something that complements speech or even constitutes discourse.  There can be a force akin to 'spirit and word' (194).  It carries its own meaning and can say something.  However, it is complex and not easily defined.  Is it just the suspension of language, or something that resists naming, for example?  Perhaps the best way is to examine how it actually works in specific contexts, opening the issue of a possible pedagogic function.  [Some examples of philosophical or mystical discussion ensue, including Wittgenstein on the imperative of remaining silent if speech fails, and on silences expressing things that cannot be put into words].

It is rare to permit silence among students or ourselves, and silence is normally seen as a denial, the result of dependency or immaturity.  This obviously helps to marginalize some students who are in effect silenced.  However the project of developing 'self criticality'  is a valuable one, and it is often 'manifest within silence as much as within language' (195), especially if we want to embrace the unspeakable and the inexpressible.  This is not to argue for mysticism, although it has possibly been excluded too readily in the West, with its 'fully confessional culture' [not Foucault but Mckendrick], and there are cultural differences in terms of its value—apparently, silence is welcomed 'in some Eastern cultures'(196), as providing opportunity to reflect.  This sets up the need to analyze silence [philosophically it seems].

There are both Western and Buddhist traditions that value silence, arguing that it can be 'empowering and expressive', is not diametrically opposed to talk, and can be the source for more enriched teaching and learning.  Levinas talks about how silence can lead to a philosophy of otherness, and it can also bring 'openness to the educational experience', towards both self and other.

In the west, there is a tradition of 'the via negativa', pointing to what happens when language breaks down [we achieve the apophatic—a knowledge of what is not, an awareness of silence that lies around the perimeter of language].  Blanchot has pointed out that what we think of as inexpressible is always defined in relation to a particular system of expression, but the via negativa offers a road towards the understanding of God in any experience.  One approach involved trying to find out what God is not—not essence, not science, not truth and so on.  God becomes unknowable, and the only appropriate stance is 'mystical ignorance'(197).  God is itself silence, and to speak is reductive—'we are merely speaking of silence'.  Mystical silence is a 'therapeutic strategy for approaching God'.  Worshippers should experience God's presence and be silent, and this experience is beyond words [although this did not stop some theologians from becoming preachers as a sort of inevitable alternative].

The Buddhist tradition also emphasizes the limits of language, 'by completely penetrating the nonduality between speech and silence'.  This leads to something unutterable.  The Buddha himself remained silent in metaphysical debates in order to oppose dualistic thinking.  It follows from this that for Buddhists 'silence then has a therapeutic function—it dissolves all contingencies (that is, anxieties, questions, answers, and so on).' (199).  This points to something beyond suffering action or speech.  In order to achieve enlightenment, we have to pursue 'the praxis of silence', to grasp the mysteries of the world beyond contingency and [normal understanding].  While western mysticism urges us to 'grapple with the paradox of expressing the inexpressible', Buddhism 'is more expressive of a way of being; it is an ontological silence—the silence of being or life itself'.

However both suggest that silence is clearly related to speech and is as elusive when it comes to capturing it with words.  We should be silent 'in order to listen' and recognize this elusiveness (200).  [But wouldn't our silence also be elusive as communicating our intentions?] This makes us address what we do not articulate or want to speak about, and how normal language is an attempt 'to cement reality through forming our consciousness and to verbalize logically' [for which, praise be!] .  Pedagogues should be more aware of silence and non verbal communication, especially if they're interested in emotional communications.  Non verbal cues often accompany silence.  Silences can be used to provide time for reflection as well as to discipline a noisy class.  Apparently, research has shown the benefits of developing '"wait - time"' (201).  Silent observation might also be useful.  Pedagogue should be aware of the political uses of silence as in Freire. [Why not stay silent instead of writing this?]

Dichotomous thinking often allows students only to speak or be silent, and to ignore the continuum between the two.  This 'monolithic view' dominates contemporary educational settings and this further helps marginalize 'such issues as emotions, selfhood, and otherness'[so autoethnography is a disciplinary device?], and contribute to not listening to the other.  Regulating silence and speech clearly shows the effects of 'social norms'.  Silence can therefore 'easily regress into a regime of subjectification' (202), an unrecognized disciplinary mechanism.  A suitable response would be to 'highlight the limits of speech', and we should not try to 'verbalize the unspeakable'.  Instead we should try to become more mindful [sic! Very fashionable!] and self critical.

Self-criticality involves being able to 'question and doubt our own presuppositions about silence and speech', as a part of the praxis of silence.  We move outside conventional thinking and try to establish what makes it meaningful.  Buddhist and western mystic arguments could be seen as helpful.  Learning to listen to silence helps to open spaces with the meaning of emotions can be rethought.  It can develop as 'a way of being in relation to others' (203).  Normal views of subjectivity can be resisted as a kind of politics.  First we have to notice different kinds of silence in classrooms, and then try to nurture or enrich them.  Some silence can lead to explorations of the self and personal growth.  It can help us make sense of thoughts and actions.  It can indicate 'unspoken understanding'.  Or it can represent the fear of self exposure.  'Bodily configurations and gestures' can accompany these different kinds of silence. 

How can anyone tell which kind of silence a particular case represents?  Teachers already know that some silences indicate a problem, although it is not always easy to know what the problem is.  We should focus on how silence works, by observing what happens in student performances [not too difficult after all then? Trust teachers?].  In any event, we need to overcome 'the one sidedness and ideological biases' (204) of current views about science in classrooms.  Complexity should be stressed, and there are no easy solutions.  We might develop our own self-criticality, and draw on those traditions that sees silence as 'a site of possibility rather than as a problem'.  Of course there are some silences that are harmful, but openness to silence 'may lead to a deeper respect for the Other'.  [So if we ignore all the nasty possibilities and just really really hope for the best…] 'In other words, an educational philosophy of silence is a philosophy of otherness'.  [Or a philosophy of ignoring kids with problems, and so on].  Valuing the inexpressible is the same as valuing otherness.

Buddhist ontological silence can be 'extremely useful pedagogically', since it challenges conventional questions and points to the reductive character.  The Buddha's silence was a way of showing this 'vacuity of any response to ultimate questions' (205).  This is an intellectual and pedagogically valuable response, to be contrasted with the current obsession with noise and talk.  Educators should create safe places for students to do silence in.  We should encourage them to orient to the inexpressible/otherness as a starting point for learning, as 'a "philosophy of unknowing"'.

Levinas says that the face to face situation is an important starting point for the analysis of otherness, with the other's face and voice resisting easy categorization [sounds like Guattari on faciality].  We can [sometimes] encounter naked expression as such, pure otherness, which is prior to conventional expression—and faces are involving and engaging.  We should resist the conventional concerns of western philosophy which is to understand the other in conventional knowledge, allowing sameness to dominate if.  Instead, we should preserve the Other as 'an unknowable mystery'(206).  [Which has always struck me as being a prelude to demonizing them].  If we maintain silence, we better perceive 'the Others' transcendence'.  There are no dominating forms of communication.  We must take responsibility for the conduct of our own communication, including cultivating humility, which 'requires a radical generosity and compassion' [we need to be secure and disinterested bourgeois philosophers then peddling the high aesthetic?]   This must be a continuous process of self-criticality, constantly questioning 'the very ground of such an encounter' (207).

Lyotard similarly shows that 'language imposes limits on reality'[in The Differend: a differend 'arises when opposing parties express themselves in the terms appropriate to different regimes'].  Philosophers and educators should invent new languages to cover these ruptures [dead easy] , and silence 'might be an appropriate response to this (as in the case of the Holocaust, for example, which figures a seemingly "absolute" silence)'.  In classrooms, talk can colonize silence, but meaning can still escape.  There are systems of silences where a silence becomes 'as effective a tool of signification as utterance'.  As a result, it 'always carries with it the potential for resistance and critique'. SIlence can subvert the dominant discourse.  Dominant discourses can reduce meanings to narratives, as with 'the suffering at Auschwitz'.  A philosophy of silence involves 'innovation and the call to respect that certain experiences (of the Other) can be sensed, but cannot be expressed' [which leaves room for the sort of sentimentality and passive empathy that is criticized elsewhere].  Certainly the motivated silence of Auschwitz survivors remind us that the events were unspeakable, outside of 'the communicational ideology of political modernity'.  However, thinking of 'heard silences' reminds us of traces of otherness and the need to respect them.

There is a parallel here with the argument for '"teaching with ignorance"'[not Rancière, but Sharon Todd in a conference paper, 2002].  This also involves not seeing acquiring knowledge is the ultimate goal.  Valuing silence means admitting our ignorance about the Other, while fulfilling our ethical responsibilities to them.  It leads to compassion [or sentimentality etc.].  This is clearly contrary to conventional aims for education, but it is a matter of 'responsibility to be open to the Other' (208).  We need an education that 'values and cherishes wonder' [sounds like OFSTED on the aims of religious education].

We must overcome our current fear of silence.  We must not understand the instrumentally, in terms of either discipline or reflection.  We should consider new transformative possibilities—encouraging self criticality; recovering 'a sense of the Other'; restoring 'a lost sense of humility and wonder' [getting really repetitive here].  We have to be ready to listen, as the mystics summarized above have argued.  We have to judge the appropriate moments to use either silence or words, and sometimes it is wiser not to say anything, 'when students are not ready to listen'[all of them?  Most?  None?].  We should not automatically correct silences, since this assumes pathology.  Sometimes silence is valued differently in different cultures.  It can be a form of participation if it is 'silent active listening' (209).  Nor does pushing students into speech always liberate them.

All this presents 'a tremendous challenge for educators and students', in understanding the complexity and in constructing suitable spaces.  First we should encourage teachers and students to appreciate the complexity, and recognize especially the claims of the mystics about the need to grasp the inexpressible.  This will challenge the conventions [again!] and help develop a critique.  'The most passionate and exhilarating moments of learning have a built in sense of mystery, of something that is inexpressible' (210) [so they assert, tautologically], so silence can mean students are becoming 'creators of meaning'.  However, 'this approach may ultimately be as elusive as any other'.  Nevertheless we need to keep open possibilities to both question silences and respond in silence.  This is risky, but worthwhile.

The sort of philosophy we have been reviewing is therefore particularly relevant, and might help us rethink 'the whole nature of education', including pedagogy.

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