On Law

Jewish World Review August 31, 2001 /12 Elul, 5761


Silence


By Crispin Sartwell


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WHEN I hear that the courts are carving out a moment of silence for Virginia's children, I respond with deep longing. I'm raising five kids, and they're were more or less always home this summer, often with a circus of friends.

The racket is perfectly proportioned to the boredom. Let me describe to you what is happening right now, as I write this. First of all, the television is, as always, on. Oldest son Hayes is making youngest son Sam squeal, his volume dial set on ten. Baby Jane has a summer cold and is in nonstop squall. Other children seem to be downloading Jah Rule rap songs and playing them continuously, as they burn CDs for their friends.

A Federal Court has ruled that it is constitutional for Virginia's schools, as they did during the last school year, to require a minute's silence of all children, to "meditate, pray or engage in other silent activity."

I am skeptical for this reason: I'm not sure kids are actually capable of a moment of silence. But trying to give them one is a very, very good idea.

Silence has always suggested a spiritual and intellectual state, a state of readiness or contemplation. This moment of silence could obviously be employed in a wide variety of ways.

This does not sound to me like it is an establishment of religion. Rather, it sounds like the establishment of the impossible beauty of an impossible silence in a world that roars continually. Perhaps a minute of silence is the only part of the average school day that would constitute education.

As long as no one is making the students pray, silence can surely do no harm. One thing you will notice if you go to almost any school is that teachers spend an inordinate amount of time enforcing quiet, preventing or precluding communication among the students, not to mention rude noises and teacher abuse.

Still, the school is an atmosphere of noise, not least because teachers are continually hectoring children with information, until their cute little ears overflow and their brains bulge. The idea that silence could serve an educational function is counter-intuitive.

But education is a mode of communication, and there is no communication without silence, which goes a long way to explaining why there was no communication in my house this summer. There must be spaces between words or there are no words. There must be lapses in the lecture or one ceases to hear. There must be extinction or there is no becoming.

So as they reach in their minds toward G-d or toward nothing at all, kids will be reaching into the heart of the matter. That really can't violate the establishment clause.

And if Virginia successfully creates a moment of silence, I invite them to bring it up here and drop it off at my place.


JWR contributor Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His website is www.crispinsartwell.com. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Crispin Sartwell