Time for Reflection
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RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: It occurred to me the other day driving along the freeway that we may all be headed for a world in which nothing is rarer than an idea born of reflection. In the modern age now several generations old, humans began inventing technologies of communication and then the technologies began to reinvent us, pushing us faster, driving our impatience, feeding our appetite for distraction. A few weeks ago on this program, after AOL had swallowed Time Warner executives in the two media empires assured us of the brave new world ahead.
GERALD LEVIN, Chairman & CEO, Time Warner: (January 12) Consumers are watching your news show, a distinguished news show. If at the same time you start talking about a Supreme Court decision or what’s happening abroad or in China, at that point, if I want to go and do a little background checking and go into the Net to get some information….
JIM LEHRER: While we’re still on the air.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Imagine what a TV screen of the future might look like. Imagine with all there is to see and do on the screen how difficult it will be to concentrate on what is actually being said. Lyndon Johnson was famous for watching three televisions at one time — such was his vanity during the evening news. But LBJ seems of a tranquil, innocent age by comparison to the five-year-olds today with their tiny fingers on the TV remote, able to surf 50 channels. Curious — that word we use now, to describe TV watching and viewing the Web: Surfing. We feel ourselves propelled at the ocean’s furious edge, exhilarated, even, but we do not swim in deep, still waters. Last fall, the Department of Education released the findings of a study of the writing skills of fourth, 8th and 12th graders. The study found that only one in four students in America have the full command of the written word. Whatever, our kids shrug, whenever we challenge their thinking or ask them to explain. The Department of Education study found that most students are capable of social chitchat, of the sort of pacifist communication on e-mail, but most do not know how to present or argue an idea or tell a story on the page.
There are ideas, it’s true, that are born quite suddenly, and there are ideas that are born from conversation. But there is another kind of idea, now quite rare — I mean, those ideas that are born of reflection, the self – alone — pondering. In order for a student to learn the skill of expository prose, to learn argumentation or narration, a student has to slow down time, to pull back. In older times, people talked of the necessity of literal retreat into the desert, into a library, behind the doors of a study, to think on paper. Montaigne, the father of the essay, retired to a tower to think, to write. Virginia Woolf spoke of needing a room of her own to compose herself.
It occurs to me now that more than a room or a tower is needed for reflection. One needs time. So many times I’ve rushed past Rodin’s, “The Thinker,” here in the courtyard of the legion of honor in San Francisco never stopping. For a long time Rodin seemed too monumental a sculpture for my taste. And besides, the thinker, like the Mona Lisa smile, was something I had seen in pictures too often for me to stop and consider. But stop and consider him now, The Thinker. August Rodin born in the mid 19th century lived long enough to see telegraph wires and railroad tracks. In those years when the modern world was accelerating, Rodin cast this man with the body of an ancient hero, the actor folding in on himself. Such an interesting word “reflection”: The casting back of light, one’s face in the mirror, the sky and the surface of a pond. I do not know a figure less emblematic of the modern people we have become in our age of cell phones and chat rooms and politicians who speak in sound bites before rushing on. This solitary man shuts his eyes to see himself. His attention does not surf. It lies as still as a summer pond.
I’m Richard Rodriguez.