The Size of a College and the Sound of a Voice

By Stephen H. Webb

What is the appropriate size of a liberal arts college? I want to suggest that the answer to that question has to do with the relationship between space and sound. That might seem like an odd suggestion, since sound leaves no trace in space. Although every college has a symbol that it reproduces in its promotional materials, I know of no college that sends out a CD of what it sounds like. Nevertheless, sound, especially the sound of the human voice, is at the heart of the liberal arts. Students want to hear what their teachers have to say. Colleges are, in a way, an architecture of sound, designed to promote verbal exchanges. Their soundscape is every bit as important as their landscape.

The visual metaphors for learning that have dominated philosophy from Plato to the Enlightenment need to be contrasted with an oral understanding of education. Connecting knowledge to seeing makes it a private event, since you do not have to be seen in order to see. Moreover, you can see from a distance. Indeed, the further you can see (the further from the object you are) the more impressive is the act of knowledge. Hearing, by contrast, is more relational and intimate than seeing. Since sound waves travel slower and weaken more quickly than light waves, we must be fairly close to the source of the sound we are trying to hear. As all actors know, we understand what someone is saying better when we can see them speak. By forcing us to face each other, hearing creates community.

For most of Western history, speaking and hearing, not reading and writing, were at the heart of education. In ancient Greece and Rome, education centered on the projection of the voice. The Roman Forum was crowded because people had to be close to the speaker. Indeed, before the electrical amplification of sound, leadership was frequently determined by the strength of one's voice.
Although the Hebrews did not have schools of rhetoric, they did understand the power of voice. "Then Moses said to Aron, `Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining'" (Ex. 16:9). The Israelites were united because they could assemble together to listen to the word of God.

Sound creates space. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, churches performed the drama of the mass. People came and went, often talking noisily, until the priest on the "stage" raised the consecrated elements for all to see. Protestants replaced the altar with the pulpit, and thus the church became more like an auditorium.

Likewise, movie theaters were once called picture palaces because they were so roomy. The orchestral music that accompanied silent movies needed a large hall to allow for long-lasting reverberations. With the coming of the talkies, theaters had to be redesigned to enhance the fragile features of the human voice.

Colleges too are acoustical spaces. In the Middle Ages, church bells defined the boundaries of the villages. A bell that can be heard from any spot on campus has the same unifying purpose. The people who built bell towers on college campuses also built chapels, so that all the students could be addressed in one place.

Technology can record the human voice, but we still have a deep desire to hear performers in person. Liberal arts colleges offer students the intimacy of hearing their professors in close quarters. It is this, in part, that makes both large universities and "distance learning" so problematic for effective teaching and learning.

Read more essays on the liberal arts at http://www.liberalarts.wabash.edu/liberalartsonline/archives/index.html

Webb is Professor of Religion at Wabash.