The bell rang for class to begin. My writing teacher announced that today our classtime would be spent on a writing assignment. After giving instructions, she released us to begin. Most of my high school classmates immediately took pencil to paper. But a few of us did not. Instead, we sat back in our seats and "thought." You know the look. You could wave your hand in front of our faces and we would not notice. We were deep in thought.
This could continue for ten, fifteen, even thirty minutes before we would "snap out of it" and begin to write furiously. We had found our stories. We had them organized in our minds. And now we wrote to beat the clock before class was over.
Those who had started at the beginning of class had plenty of time to hand in their papers. And those efforts usually produced uninspired stories of not much interest. But those of us who spent time thinking before we wrote had the stories she found worth reading aloud the next day. Many of us ran overtime, finishing and handing in our paper just as the next class was about all seated. I remember looking back as we left the classroom—our teacher was moving these last papers to the top. She would choose to read them first.
"Sitzfleisch" is the ability to sit quietly and think through a problem over a long time. It is a German term. It has no equivalent in English but we recognize the general concept. I value and promote it with my student teachers. But I only recently encountered "Sitzfleisch" in an essay by the Princeton scholar Freeman Dyson about the great Robert Oppenheimer who led our scientists to develop the atomic bomb during World War II.
Many great scientists have described how they solve problems. The solution never comes as a mechanical process of observation-hypothesis-test-results. Nearly all problems are solved after spending much thought-time on them, what we might call "mulling it over."
Linus Pauling described this in an interview. He had learned that xenon, an inert element that never forms chemical bonds in the human body, was a pain-killer. "I thought about it day after day for several days; in the evening when I would go to bed, I would lie there and think about the problem.... Then, seven years later, I was reading a scientific paper on crystal structure, and I said to myself, I understand anesthesia. I worked for about a year gathering data, and then I published my [classic] paper...."
Oddly, Dyson brings up "Sitzfleisch" because Oppenheimer did not have this ability: "He could never sit still long enough to do a difficult calculation. His calculations were often done hastily and were often full of mistakes." Oppenheimer’s contributions were in organizing other scientists. He could never extend his initial speculations on black holes and other physics by completing the difficult calculations. That task was eventually accomplished by others.
My concern today is that when I visit schools, I see teachers give students far fewer opportunities to sit-and-think. Thanks to often-inappropriate technologies, many students have lost the ability to be alone with their thoughts. More and more, teachers are taught to channel every student thought to get the desired consequences, often test results. Students are never allowed to be "alone with their minds." Under constant external bombardment with entertainment, many students appear unable to be alone with their internal thoughts.
One of the best places to be alone with your mind, quietly soaking up the environment around you, is on a field trip in the woods. One high school biology colleague of mine, in the center of the state, has led students on these popular experiences for years. But lately, her students insist on bringing their mobile phones and ear plugs—a practice that totally destroys the experience of being immersed in the wild. When she sets her foot down and prohibits the devices, she receives heavy pushback from both her school administrators and parents that are blinded by the new technology that they think can do no harm.
"Sitzfleisch!" They should stop and think deeply about that—if they still can.