Life In A Boiler Factory

If you lived through, or have read about, the turbulent ‘60’s in America, you may recall the name of Theodore Hesburgh.


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It was a noisy time in America, especially on college campuses, largely due to the raging controversy over the war in Vietnam.  Student sit-ins became a favorite campus pastime – flocks of students descending on the office of the college president and literally sitting in, crowding the floors and hallways, generally clogging up the works and bringing things to a standstill.  One of the principal demands of the student activists was the abolishment of ROTC programs, which were sending a steady stream of graduates into the military services.  It was an agonizing time in American higher education.  Agonizing, and noisy.


Rev. Hesburgh was the president of Notre Dame.  He served for 35 years, the longest tenure in Notre Dame’s history.  He guided the university through a time of impressive growth.  He was world-renowned as an educator.  But one of his best contributions to the period may well have been as a voice of calm reason.  I remember reading a speech by Rev. Hesburgh, given at the height of the student protest movement, in which he said, in effect, that the search for enlightenment can’t take place in a boiler factory.  In other words, we can hear each other better – and thus reason together better – if we lower the volume.


I thought about Rev. Hesburgh when I read that the Federal Communications Commission will consider allowing in-flight cell phone usage on passenger aircraft.  The FCC’s chairman thinks it would be okay if we took out our cell phones and started making calls once the plane reaches 10,000 feet.  Coffee, tea, or bedlam?


The protests have begun.  The FCC’s office has been flooded with calls and emails, the gist of which are that cell phone usage aloft would lead to unbearable noise pollution, an extra irritant to go along with narrow seats, tighter rows, baggage fees, security obstacle courses, and no free sodas.  Allowing cell phone conversations would no doubt be a benefit to business travelers who could put the time to good use.  But have you sat in an airport waiting room and listened to all of the inane chatter going on from people with cell phones glued to their ears?  They’re the vast majority.  Well, maybe not.  The vast majority are all of the rest of the folks glaring at them and wishing they’d just shut up.


We live in an incredibly noisy world as it is.  We’re bombarded by sound – from our televisions, boom boxes, ipods, traffic, construction, lawnmowers, and people who just can’t stop talking.  We take so little time to insulate ourselves from the noise, to be quiet and just listen.  I think of imagination as what you see when your eyes are closed.  And maybe it’s also what you hear when you’re quiet.  We’d probably be a lot better off if we took just 15 minutes a day to shut it all off, be calm, think, wait.


As a writer, I absolutely depend on quiet.  Some writers tell me they have music playing while they write.  I suppose for them, it’s okay.  But I have to keep the noise – what a character in The Governor’s Lady calls “the howl of the world” – at bay.  I’ve imagined another world, populated it with folks who intrigue me, and given them some dilemmas to confront.  When I visit their world, I want to hear from them, and I can’t do that if the howl of my other world intrudes.


I don’t know how the FCC proposal will play out, but I suspect that the howl of protests will take care of the matter.  If we need another voice of reason in the matter, I’d suggest Rev. Hesburgh.  And maybe we should consider sit-ins at the FCC office.