Michael Richmond was not my student, with the exception of his senior comprehensive oral exam. I was his examiner for his major in philosophy. He was a English and philosophy double-major. It was early. He was terribly nervous and clumsy and had trouble identifying a simile, and muttered through he details of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I asked him odd questions about the absurd and tried to get him to say something interesting. He left the room as soon as he could and earned a deservingly average grade. Turns out, Michael is among a few of the brightest, most well-read, internally motivated, thoughtful people I know. We became good friends afterwards and write each other letters with spotted regularity. Postcards, too. When we spend time together, I do ninety-seven percent of the talking. Last summer, right before we moved to North Dakota, we spent an evening together at a bookstore, a bad chinese buffet, and a decent coffee shop in Lafayette, IN. As we discussed teaching, he somehow came around to saying “You’re good at talking.” It stuck with me. It was as though he was telling me that it was okay for me to talk and for him to listen or do whatever he was doing. It took away some guilt and pressure. He quietly empowered me.
Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, was a surprisingly wonderful study to read. She from time to time oversimplifies to make a point, but usually comes back to clarify and untrouble things a bit. In a time when anecdotal evidence is stretched well beyond its limits, Cain shows the power of storytelling and careful attention to ideas that can build an elegant case, modestly.
Her point is simple: we need to move beyond the present (and past) cultural obsession with extroversion and learn to love, understand, and make good use of its opposite.
She’s right, of course, but I knew that when I agreed to review the book. The real question is whether she manages to disclose the truth with enough fidelity to her initial insight.
I think she did, for the most part.
There is something rather inelegant and almost ironic about the book in that it sometimes feels like an appeal for poetry rendered in prose. The performance slightly undermines the content in certain spots. But, on the whole, Cain makes her point in a deliberate and, yes, even quiet way.
I was not moved by the utilitarian or prescriptive aspects of the book and I despise pop psychology. But that perhaps says more about me than the book itself.
I was quite pleased, thrilled even, to have such an erudite and mostly credible source address an ongoing doubt I’ve been having about my teaching. Namely, that I do not know what “participation” is.
In my course syllabi, I always including something like the following (from this semester’s class in Philosophical Foundations of Education) about it:
I have no uniform expectation for participation. Honestly, I don’t really know what this thing called “participation” is exactly. What I do is this: classroom participation is a mixed bag: better and worse, direct and indirect, this and that and the other thing and that thing over there. The most obvious way to participate is to come to class, and come prepared. This will crystalize as the semester progresses. Those who show up prepared, who are fully attentive and awake, obviously participate in a way that is different from those who don’t attend or who show up unprepared. Beyond attendance and preparation, I would actually prefer that you participate well in indirect ways rather than feel the need to participate poorly in more direct ways. In other words: speaking is not necessarily required for participation. There is space to be an introvert or a contemplative here. Shy and bashful people are welcome here. There is also room for the converse. But if you don’t genuinely have something you want to say or ask, don’t feel pressured to speak up. At the same time, please, do not hesitate to ask a question, any question. By all means: interrupt and press a point that you have authentic interest in or confusion about. Good direct participation isn’t fancy; it can include asking what a certain word means, asking me to slow down or to be more descriptive or to give an example, mentioning a movie you just saw that relates to what we’re looking at, telling a joke or even expressing serious reservations or dissatisfaction with something you find repulsive. I do not want to deter good, lively participation, but I also don’t want to create the false impression that you need to speak up for artificial, made-up reasons that I have no serious justification for.
Although she complicates the distinction in the end, much of the book relies on a provisional, yet artificial, binary between the introverted and the extroverted. Don’t let it fool you: Cain shows the details well, even as she might overstate the distinction sometimes.
More deeply embedded, however, is a highly unfashionable, but altogether persuasive, thesis on personality and dispositions.
Cain is not only advocating for understanding introverts, she is also trying to say something about the human condition: we are not blank slates, as Locke and Pinker claim, we carry certain dispositions in our hearts and minds and bodies that do not necessarily come from our environment. There is mystery inside us all.
We are ensouled.
Going back to Plato, education has always been about dispositions and their formation. As you may recall, education is the craft of desire. As much as people think that education is all about knowing, it is really much more about being and becoming. This is why human development has always been a concern for educators.
One sign of who we are is our personality. By “personality” I mean something like the way we are. Not just behavior or what we are—who we are.
I would propose a stronger thesis to Cain’s mostly brilliant defense of the introvert: perhaps we are all introverts, alienated from our deepest, most profound self, hidden in a religious, unconscious place that we live to seek after. In other words: God is an introvert.
Another way to put it is like this: if you paired Quiet with Augustine’s Confessions, I think you’d have a near perfect match.
As it is, Quiet is worth the time and, not ironically, the quiet required to read it well.