Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 671:
A QUIET PLACE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 671.

Today, smart high school students remind me about quiet. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Our library runs a workshop for inner-city honor students. They come here to learn about library research. First they fill out a questionaire. What'll you study in college? What do you like least about libraries? What do you like best?

One set of answers was startling. What do you suppose these students liked best about libraries? Of course many gave the obvious answer. Libraries are places to get information. They house books, encyclopedias, and friendly information-givers.

But two-thirds of the students said something else entirely. Two-thirds said they liked libraries because they're a quiet place -- a peace-filled environment.

Smart students from a tough school! Their lives are not filled with quiet. These students want to study science, engineering, medicine, and law. They know they'll need a mental oasis. The library is their metaphor for that need. They remind me of something that Jean Paul Sartre said:

Let us not look for the door, and the way out, anywhere but in the wall against which we are living. Instead, let us seek the respite where it is -- in the very thick of the battle.
Those students reflect a tension that stretches any creative person. Pain and trouble work like grains of sand in an oyster. Without disturbance, we don't grow. But neither do we grow, or create, without internal quiet. The trick is to come to that peace in the middle of the marketplace. A wonderful poem by Yeats catches the idea.
My fiftieth year had come and gone.
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body for a moment blazed,
And twenty minutes, more or less,
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed, and could bless.

Still, now and then, we have to go to a real quiet place. Endless distraction kills something inside us. On rare occasions we meet our quiet place, our deep creative content, with another person. Maybe you find your quiet place in physical exercise.

But find it you must. Find it or die inside! You'll never know how to find it in the middle of the whirlwind, if you haven't first learned to find it in a quiet room.

People who spend their entire life responding to the external world die inside. That's what these smart students sensed at some very deep level. The library was their perfect metaphor for a place apart. And they knew they'd have to find such a place on the way to forming themselves.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


I'm grateful to Cherie Colbert and Marilynn Green, at the University of Houston Library, for drawing these promising young people to my attention and for help with this episode.

Sartre credits Ralph Waldo Emerson with the idea that I quote.

Something that the 8th-9th century scholar, Alcuin of York, said on this matter clings to my mind. It was,

How sweet life became
When we sat quietly . . .
Midst all these books.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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