The Quiet Car

Whenever I ride Amtrak, I head directly for what is called the Quiet Car. It is the one car on each Amtrak train where cell phone usage is prohibited and only quiet conversations are allowed. Compared with the other cars on an Amtrak train, it is a haven of peace and, for the most part, quiet.

The Amtrak staff is emphatic and clear about the rules for riding in the Quiet Car, and I have seen many a conductor admonish passengers for not observing the rules of the game. Nonetheless, I am continually amazed at the number of people who seem either oblivious to the rules of the Quiet Car or just cannot stay off of their cell phones, iPhones, or Blackberries. No doubt there are others along for the ride that do observe the rules but inwardly suffer from being out of touch. Of course, most quiet cars have regular riders who have achieved near vigilante status in taking enforcement into their own hands: start a conversation on your cell phone in the Quiet Car and you are likely to encounter the scorn of at least one of these standard bearers! They may be enemies of technology or simply lovers of quiet, but they are on guard! Just the same, many of the other passengers are quite willing to endure the wrath of the vigilantes in order to do the business that must be taken care of or to update a friend on their whereabouts.

I have been struck, during the past few months, as I have visited schools and worked with school people from throughout the country, how there is a growing concern not just about how young people handle or mishandle technology, but also how adults are dealing with it. For example, should faculty have Facebook pages, where students can be their “friends?” What are the boundaries when it comes to attending to personal matters on the computer at work? What should a head of school do when, during a Board meeting, he or she is giving a report, looks up, and sees so many of the trustees with what is now a familiar posture in the board room, with individuals sitting upright and their heads down, working away at the electronic instrument in their hands?

At a recent faculty program I was conducting, the director of technology at the school was a wise and capable respondent to my presentation. As he put it in his response, technology is like a mirror that reflects back to us, at us, all that is human about us. It is like a playing field, as he described it, where all of the issues of being finite human beings are on display. Because of its appeal, its usefulness, its ability to connect us with others, perhaps even some of its novelty, technological devices speak to the deeply human in us. In turn, they also amplify all that is human about us.

My friend and predecessor in this job, Peter Cheney, was fond of saying that we are not so much human beings seeking to be spiritual, but spiritual beings seeking to be human. That is a description, I believe, that sets a wonderful tone for the spiritual mission of our schools. This means, when it comes to technology, the humanity that is on display in our relationship to technology has an important link with our spiritual sides. How we approach, how we handle, and—most importantly—how we frame the values around the use of technology for all segments of the school community has a lot to do with our spiritual selves. The “real world” seems to have a tendency to invade the confines of the Quiet Car; it also turns out that the state of our souls, be they quieted or disquieted, has a good deal to do with how we live and move out there in that real world.