Wearing Headphones on Pathways: A Threat to School Culture

By Luke Stone ’20

Former Chaplain Dr. David Smith once said at an Invite Back Weekend panel, “We understand that Woodberry is not the real world. And we don’t want it to be.” And although the real world has come to be dominated by busy business people walking the streets blasting music in their AirPods, Beats, or Bose Noise-Cancelling Headphones, Woodberry should not be. Several years ago, the thought of a student merely using his phone on a brick pathway up the hill, which has been a designated sacred space, would have been unthinkable. Now, unfortunately, it is almost unusual to not see a boy walking between classes with his headphones in. Using headphones in a sacred space threatens our school culture because it harms Woodberry boys’ social skills and negatively impacts our sense of community with almost no benefit.

Allowing boys to listen to music while walking around campus harms their social skills. The most beneficial part of a Woodberry social education is forced interaction. Whereas most schools allow their students to be as social or anti-social as they please, Woodberry, through seated meal, consultations, and engaging in-class discussions, mandates that boys always be willing and ready to share their thoughts. Walking around campus distraction-free facilitates those same interactions between members of the community, whether they are brief “walk-and-talk” conversations or a simple “How are you?” While it may feel somewhat uncomfortable or intimidating at first, addressing people as you walk by them eventually becomes second nature to most boys.  I was absolutely terrible at small talk before I arrived at Woodberry (because South Florida is a lawless waste devoid of social niceties), but being forced to interact and engage with other people ultimately made me more comfortable in conversation. Almost everything at Woodberry has a purpose. And mandated social engagement exists to ensure that boys leave the school more confident, outgoing, and personable than when they arrived because those personality traits can prove crucial differentiators in increasingly competitive college and job application processes.

The most obvious drawback to boys’ wearing headphones outside is that it weakens our sense of community. While we don’t have a “speaking tradition” like Washington and Lee does, it’s sort of an unwritten rule to, at the very least, acknowledge someone with a nod as you pass them on a walkway. In the frantic moments between classes, after lunch, and before athletic practices start, students use these passing conversations to catch up with one another. These personal interactions are a part of what makes Woodberry the school that it is. That sense of community we strive to create suffers when members of that community don’t talk with one another.

While some view wearing headphones as customary and routine, the fact is that in a community like ours, wearing headphones projects a certain arrogance or aloofness. Some people perceive it as a more subtle “talk to the hand” that implies, “I don’t have time for you,” or “I don’t care.” More than anything, it says, “I’m bored.” And what’s a great way to avoid boredom? Talking to other people.

While the aforementioned “principled” arguments would be effective on their own, it is also important to look at this issue from a logistical perspective. It is particularly important to ask why someone might feel the need to wear headphones in this context. I know that listening to music can aid productivity, or be therapeutic, or help get someone in the right frame of mind for something. I have headphones in during study hall most nights, and I have seen the studies touting its efficacy while getting ready for a game or a workout. But walking and getting ready to sit in English class, take a math test, or do a lab activity doesn’t require a pre-game playlist.

In our community, everyone can get demerits, everyone lives under the honor system, and everyone has to wait seated meals at some point. Inherent in those tenets is a certain egalitarianism. All of us are equal, and none of us are too important to be friendly with someone whom we pass on a pathway. We all sacrifice things by choosing to live in this community. And there’s no reason why we can’t sacrifice ten to fifteen minutes of music per day.

Categories: Opinion

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