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.