Learning Alone: Solitude and undergraduate education

Catholic colleges and universities are by most accounts admirably consistent in their emphasis on community and cooperation as a way of life and learning. With their emphases inside and outside the classroom on social justice, service and solidarity, and with the myriad opportunities they offer students to “get involved,” such institutions help to counter the destructive individualism that seems ingrained in American society. Yet I wonder if it is not time for a counterintuitive moment that stresses not the group or the cohort, but the individual student instead. From my vantage point as a teacher and part-time administrator engaged in ongoing conversations about student learning, I would like to see a greater emphasis placed on solitude: the regular periods of uninterrupted time a student spends alone, struggling with calculus, savoring George Eliot’s prose or just thinking things through.

I applaud cooperative learning, emphasize class participation and rejoice when a shy student joins a campus club. I encourage peer tutoring and visits to the campus learning center, and I see the educational and social benefits of service learning and study abroad. Still, I would argue that ample stints of solitude, of time apart from peers and others, should also mark the college experience, especially today.


In my own undergraduate days, I once ran to my mathematically astute brother for help with a problem. “Well, first you have to read the problem,” he said. He was right. I hadn’t really taken the trouble to do that—at least not in the way he meant it. But he was really saying, “You can do this yourself, if you just take the time to think it through.” The deeper implication was, “This is something you ought to do on your own.” In our rush to demonstrate commitment to community and collaboration, do we teachers really believe that students (and not just the brightest ones) can learn on their own? Do we let them off the hook if we allow them to believe anything less of themselves? After all, even brainstorming sessions work best when they follow individual reflection.

Exemplars of Solitude

“Liberal education is, first and foremost, training for citizenship,” writes Michael Lind in The Wilson Quarterly. In its extensive work on college learning, the American Association of Colleges and Universities also touts citizenship as an educational aim. But even if the purpose of undergraduate education is largely social—a point of view consistent with Catholic social thought—solitude still has its place. Indeed, socially significant writing has flowed from the spigot of solitude even when it was imposed. Consider the many famous examples of masterpieces written by prisoners, like Hugo Grotius, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. More often, pondering the human condition occurs when solitude is of one’s own choosing. Karl Marx spent hours in the library of the British Museum, Martin Heidegger retired often to his Black Forest hut, and Carl Jung built a waterside tower where he kept company with the collective unconscious.

Even action-oriented America has been home to striking examples of solitude. Mark Twain took refuge in his “castle” at Quarry Farm, N.Y., and writers from Emerson and Thoreau to Annie Dillard have described the pleasures and pitfalls, the highs and lows of time spent alone. Even the reclusive Emily Dickinson lived a public life; her poetry speaks with power and grace to readers she never knew. The fame of these writers testifies that withdrawal can be for the sake of return.

These are mature examples. Yet students will not become mature in their solitude unless they practice it. What might that practice be like? Sebastian de Grazia describes how at day’s end, Niccolò Machiavelli would enter his chambers, close the doors, wash his face and don “his courtly robes and slippers.” Then, writes Machiavelli to a friend, “I enter the ancient courts of the men of antiquity where affectionately received by them I pasture on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born, where I am not too timid to speak with them and ask them for the reasons for their actions; and they in their courtesy answer me and for four hours of time I feel no weariness, I forget every trouble, I do not fear poverty, death does not dismay me; I transfer all of myself into them....” Would that more students could become Machiavellian in this way.

Strength From Solitude

Physical exercise strengthens the muscles, and in the end no one can do it for you. Similarly, regular solitary exercise of the mind develops the person. In extreme circumstances, it may mean one’s very life. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl observes that it was not necessarily the physically fit who fared best in Nazi concentration camps. Rather, “[s]ensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy makeup often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a more robust nature.” The aim of undergraduate education is not to steel students against brutality, but these years ought to have something to do with finding a breadth and depth of meaning, with “inner riches and spiritual freedom,” fit for hard as well as more congenial times.

The philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan, S.J., insisted in his writings on cognition and epistemology that insights and sound judgments cannot be forced. But following his reasoning, I would argue that they can be rendered more probable not only through time well spent in labs or on group immersion trips but also through time alone, even working through seemingly boring material. Truly interesting questions often emerge only after less interesting questions have been personally met and mastered. Creative people know that this is a law of life. Before they reach the public recital or concert hall, pianists in their practice rooms learn the value of studies that educate the fingers and the heart, and museums are filled with sketches attesting to hours of preparation that led up to the masterpiece in the next room. Studies now indicate that the ability to focus, rather than the multitasking at which the young are so adept, may be the most useful skill one brings to the workplace. So, too, favoring solitude over the constant juggling of cell phones and assignments might counter the skimming and last-minute learning that sometimes passes for undergraduate education today.

A Cultural Critique

Teachers in this process (along with practicing solitude themselves) can offer students the best materials—sometimes old, sometimes new—to ponder and probe. True, you can lead students to Shakespeare, but you cannot force them to imbibe the full scope of tragedy in “King Lear.” But the imbibing is more likely to occur if students are properly led. By encouraging students to spend time alone with poems and paintings and problems, teachers help each student to drink from his or her own well. When solitude does not degenerate into an isolating “iPodism,” students may come face to face with themselves, not only with their capacity to wonder, which reaches toward the divine, but also with their self-deceits and penchant for sham. Self-confrontation in solitude can unveil narcissism and lead to changed habits of mind. Along with possible purgation, there is also the prospect of quiet delight in truth and beauty.

Several practical if difficult steps can be taken to help students learn alone: encouraging accountability for individual time on text and task; reducing student employment and other activities when such efforts ruin the rhythm of study; supporting a kind of Socratic or Kierkegaardian courage to stand alone among classroom peers. Even simply to suggest that sufficient stress on solitude is lacking in undergraduate education is itself a practical step in service of a larger purpose. Much in fast-food-for-thought America resists the retreat and return required by the life of the mind, a mind that is fit not only for the academy but for corporate, family and civic life as well. An emphasis on solitude can be a cultural critique, and the critique and advance of cultures is what undergraduate education is partly about.

Undergraduates are not monks. But a little monkishness in learning communities is not a bad thing. It is something that educators in Catholic institutions, if they have not forgotten the desert fathers and women mystics and Thomas Merton (that socially engaged figure who sought to be a hermit), should readily understand. The philosopher Josef Pieper argued that leisure, which includes a patient, receptive attitude that tempers students’ (or more often their teachers’) obsession with “constructing” knowledge, is the basis of culture. In the West at least, anonymous monks in their disciplined leisure played a significant role in receiving and advancing the best of culture in dark times.

I realize that undergraduate culture is extraordinarily complex. Whether barbarians are at the gates of the peer-pressured, incessantly text-messaged, Facebooked and otherwise always-connected undergraduate scene is hard to judge. Perhaps they are already inside. An increased emphasis on solitude would have the benefit of helping each student to make that judgment for him- or herself. Solitude might be not only an effective means to personal breadth and depth of learning, but also an incremental remedy for aspects of undergraduate and American culture gone awry. It could also be a potent leaven for expanding those elements that are right and good.

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10 years 1 month ago
Right On Target! As educators went far over-board with "self-esteem" so to has education gone far over-board with "cooperative learning." In the end education may be b-o-r-i-n-g however, the rewards and expense of learning far out-weigh the dangers of dumb.


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