The Power of Quiet
By Nadia Rabesahala Horning
Today a controversial speaker is coming to the college where I teach. Even though I am away at a conference on social innovation, I am aware of this visit because it has generated so much activity on campus. In fact, for the past week, colleagues in my department have exchanged dozens of emails, some explaining why the department is co-sponsoring the event, others requestinq that our department rescind its cosponsorship. Our departmental exchange has been respectful, informative, constructive, and even productive. All but five colleagues participated. I was one of the quiet ones.
I ask myself why I did not feel compelled to “speak up”, and I had to get away from the activity at a conference on social innovation to find an answer to my own question. The reason for my silence is not indifference. I do have a position on the matter. What I don’t have is the urge to make noise about it. Here is why: energy, physical and intellectual, is a scarce commodity. Since it comes in limited supply, one is wise to use it where and when it matters most. What I saw my colleagues do is use their energy to accomplish two things: make noise and impress. And noisy and impressive they were: they wrote multiple messages, laying out their positions and defending them with eloquently marshaled and well-reasoned arguments. This is standard practice in academia.
So, why did I not participate in the exchange even though I did have position and I am an academic? It is because I am comfortable with quiet action that inspires, not with noise that impresses. I don’t judge colleagues who run on noise that impresses seeing as this is precisely the behavior that academia and academic institutions promote and reward. What I am saying is that I don’t think of this as the best way to use my intellectual and physical energy. Instead, what I aspire to do is inspire my students to engage with issues that go beyond debating whether or not an institution of higher learning should contribute to the reproduction of a monocultural environment, to borrow from former Stanford University provost John Etchemendy. Our world has pressing issues to deal with. And considering the state of said world, it is imperative that we focus on our students and find ways to equip them with the mindset and tools to engage a world rife with tensions in informed, respectful, ethical, and effective ways. We must teach to invest in impact, not in noise.
March 2, 2017