Unraveled Sleeves and Abaci

My summer holiday took me this week into some terrain containing oblique lessons in education. While on the remote and mountainous Big Sur coast of California I stayed in a monastic ‘cell’ at a monastery whose monks are largely silent except during sung and spoken prayers. (The discipline is relaxed at the midday meal.) Like the cells of the Grand Charterhouse in Grenoble, the cells of this monastery are designed for silent reading and other contemplative activities by their tenants when they are not at work or prayer. Each one has a little garden with a wall around it. After evening prayers the cloister becomes utterly silent and dark. No TV, screens, or gadgets.

These conditions, it turns out, may conduce to good and healthful sleep of the kind that students (and their teachers) are, more and more, giving up. It is not just that they are staying up longer: it is that when they finally drop off, the sleep they get is less in quantity and quality.  The reason lies to a great extent in the kind of light they experience in the hours before their bedtime. Light with an abundance of its constituent wavelengths at the blue end of the spectrum acts on our bodies as a signal that undercuts the impulse to sleep, even to the point of disrupting circadian rhythms. This is precisely the kind of light emitted by the gadgets one does not use at the monastery.

Though most of us would prefer a bit of sleep deprivation to a very ascetic life, there is a big difference between a bit and a lot. Sleep is supposed to “knit up the ravell’d sleeve of care,” but no knitting gets done when students are murdering sleep in how they conduct their waking lives.

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Today I visited a small but excellent bookstore that deals in new and used books. The shop assistant was helpful but distant until I took out my fountain pen to sign the credit card slip. She complimented the pen and asked if she might try it. She took it in a practiced grip and with confident speed executed a line of beautiful calligraphy. It turns out that she had studied calligraphy under Corita Kent. As the fountain pen goes the way of the abacus (except at the marvelous Hop Cheong Pen Shop in Hong Kong and other outposts), we are not just giving up a bit of the modest artistry that a full life should afford. We are handicapping the young people who miss the formative and even therapeutic effects that handwriting can have, for it turns out that learning to write and then taking notes in cursive letters rather than typing them aids in the handling of the material noted.

Such experiences and arguments would not impress Idaho’s unfortunate Governor Otter, who said of one of Idaho’s gifted but gadget-free teachers that if she has “only an abacus in her hand, she is missing the boat.” He and others like him, who keep catching futile boat rides to successive futures of the month, will eventually be forced to see what they and their students miss and what remains unraveled in their education.

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