Loneliness and Solitude in Education

How to Value Individuality and Create an Enstatic School

by Julian Stern (Author)
©2012 Monographs XII, 214 Pages
Series: Religion, Education and Values, Volume 6


Analysing loneliness and solitude in schools and exploring how to deal with them is a vital task. In recent research for the author’s Spirit of the School project, a number of pupils, teachers and headteachers described times when they felt lonely and times when they felt the need for healthy solitude. The causes of loneliness are numerous and its consequences have a significant unrecognised impact on education. How do schools deal with people when they are lonely, and how can they overcome loneliness? How can they create opportunities for healthy solitude, a welcome alternative to loneliness? Schools can sometimes try to include people by being intensely social, but end up making them feel even more excluded. A school that teaches solitude well and helps individuals deal with loneliness can be called an ‘enstatic’ school: a school in which people are comfortable within themselves. The objective of this book – the first comprehensive study of the subject – is to help us all understand loneliness and solitude and thereby to reinvigorate debates on personal, character and values education.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Tables and Figures
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1: Introduction: Why Study Loneliness and Solitude in Education?
  • Chapter 2: People Who Need People: Valuing the Personal in Education
  • Chapter 3: The Science of Loneliness and Solitude: Psychological and Evolutionary Accounts
  • Chapter 4: The Poetics of Loneliness and Solitude: Philosophical and Theological Accounts
  • Chapter 5: Action Philosophy: The Point, However, Is To Change
  • Chapter 6: Alone I Wandered: The Literature and Music of Aloneness
  • Chapter 7: Solitude is for Geeks: Science, Technology and Counting Up to One
  • Chapter 8: Humanity Alone: Travels in Time and Space
  • Chapter 9: Religious Traditions of Solitude and Alienation
  • Chapter 10: Into Great Silence
  • Chapter 11: Working Together and Apart: Schools, Homes and Communities
  • Chapter 12: Conclusion: Valuing Aloneness in Schools: From Inclusion to Enstasy
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index


Aloneness in its many forms is something trivial and something profound:

  • Trivially, I am alone when I am not in company. Profoundly, I may be, or believe myself to be, alone when I am in company.
  • Trivially, company means being with other people. Profoundly, I may be – or believe myself to be – in the company of long-dead people, fictional people, non-human animals, nature, God or gods, and much more.

This project explores aloneness, trivially and profoundly, in good ways and in bad. Analysing and dealing with school-based aloneness, both as loneliness and as solitude, is a vital task. This is the first book of its kind dedicated to that purpose. Based on years of work on the nature of schools as learning communities, this particular book arose from recent research for the Spirit of the School project (Stern 2009). In that research, and in extended interviews since the completion of that book, children and young people, teachers, and headteachers describe times when they felt lonely, and times when they felt the need for solitude. The causes of loneliness are numerous – from people’s home lives, the media, society – but the consequences of loneliness are significant for schools. How do schools deal with people when they are lonely, and how can they overcome some loneliness? And, complementing this work, how do schools create opportunities for healthy solitude, which is often a welcome alternative to loneliness? Sometimes schools, with the very best of intentions, deal with lonely or ‘loner’ people by making being alone seem altogether wrong, and by forcing them together into social activities. In such ways, schools can sometimes try to include people, but end up making them feel even more excluded. A school that teaches solitude well, and that helps people deal with and at times overcome loneliness, can be called an ‘enstatic’ school: a school in which people are comfortable within themselves. ← ix | x →

The themes of the book are what loneliness and solitude are and how they are experienced in schools; how loneliness and solitude can be studied by researchers and by children and young people in various subjects of the curriculum; how school organisation can promote healthy solitude; and why the topic is important in homes and communities beyond the school. The book’s objective is to help us all understand loneliness and solitude, and everything in between. This will also reinvigorate debates on personal, character and values education.

There are many people to thank for their help with this book, amongst whom are Eva Alerby (for silence), Liz Barrett (for writing), Mike Bottery (for suggesting I write the book, and for supporting it ever since), Anne Broadbent (for differentiating anti-swarmers from pseudo-loners), Michael Buchanan (for leadership), David Maughan Brown (for Webster), Suzannah Calvery (for contentment), Stephen Cullen (for The Wanderer), Leona English (for academic solitude), Tina Grant (for art), Gavin Graveson (for Ovid), Sue Holmes (for schools), Maria James (for conversation over many years), Stuart Jesson (for Weil), Lāsma Latsone (for parenting), Helen Lees (for silence), Rachel Mansfield (for a quiet room), Yee-Ling Ng (for her sensitive research), Anne Pirrie (for a sense of literature), Chris Sink (for listening), Cheryl Smith (for her school), Mario D’Souza (for accidie), Marie Stern (for reading), Peter Ward (for religious education), Sarah Lawson Welsh (for Kafka), Sr Agnes Wilkins (for the religious life), Moira von Wright (for silence), Sue Yore (for Julian of Norwich). I would like to thank the series editors and the publisher for agreeing to publish this volume. And thanks too to all the respondents: a set of 30 children aged 7–8 (13 female, 17 male) from a state suburban school for 200 students aged 4 to 11, a set of 38 young people aged 12–13 (20 female, 18 male) from a state rural comprehensive school for 1150 students aged 11 to 18. Two young people, aged 15 and 16 and both female, at another state urban comprehensive school also took part. There were 20 adult respondents (11 female, 9 male), 10 of whom were from Australia, six from the UK, and four from other countries. Of the adults, seven were teacher educators (based in higher education), three others were university lecturers, seven were teachers or headteachers/principals, two were trainee teachers, and one was working for an educational religious organisation. I have transcribed ← x | xi → what people have written, and used the precise transcripts – including spelling mistakes. This is done intentionally, as ‘cleaning up’ transcripts of what people say or write in research may miss out an important clue to what is being said, or how it could be interpreted. For example, Eliza (aged 12–13) referred to loneliness being ‘differant’ to everything else (quoted in the heading to Chapter 1, below). I suspect she had not read Derrida’s important concept, the famously misspelled ‘différance’ (Derrida 1978), but it is worth giving readers the opportunity to think of Derrida whilst reading Eliza, and vice versa. Similarly ‘lony’, written by Amelia (aged 8–9, and quoted in Ng 2012b: 164), might be a simple misspelling of ‘lonely’, or might be hinting at the space between ‘alone’ and ‘lonely’ (as discussed below, in Chapter 10).

The internet has provided much material, with all websites accessible on 29 December 2013, unless otherwise stated. The picture on the front cover is of Walden Pond, and it was taken by and is copyrighted to me.

Those who wish to take part in the work with young people should email me (at j.stern@yorksj.ac.uk). Those who wish to take part in the adult questionnaire can complete it online (<bit.ly/1dcVz8x>).

If ever I want to think what the pain of loneliness is, I just have to imagine life without Marie. This book is therefore dedicated to her.

Julian Stern
January 2014
← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 →


Introduction: Why Study Loneliness and Solitude in Education?

lonliness feels differant to everything else – it feels sad – like a ton of bricks is blocking you away from the others
— ELIZA (aged 12–13)

Introduction: Complex Puzzles

Schools are fascinating, complex institutions. They have been studied by sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, historians, anthropologists, management theorists, theologians, and many more. Two topics have been very little studied in school, however. Loneliness seems to have been something of a taboo subject and has not been studied, perhaps because people find it a little embarrassing. Solitude is not so much embarrassing as counter-cultural: schools are busy sociable learning communities, so why would solitude have a role in them? This chapter argues for the importance of studying these and related topics. Part of the argument is simply one of completeness: both solitude and loneliness (which together can be referred to as forms of ‘aloneness’) are frequent experiences of children and adults alike, and both should be understood if we are to understand schools. More important, though, is the considerable significance to people of loneliness and solitude, and therefore the importance of taking this significance into account when organising schooling. More and more people live alone, and all of us, in one sense or another, die alone. How can we help people live good lives, and how can we help build good communities and societies, in a world promoting various damaging forms of both individualism and ← 1 | 2 → conformity? What seems like a modest topic, unpicking the meaning of common childhood experiences, seeps into our views of politics and history, peace and conflict, and both personal and social ‘end times’. All our values can be challenged by, and will be informed by, our experiences of both solitude and loneliness.


XII, 214
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (May)
consequences opportunities vital task
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. XII, 214 pp., num. tables

Biographical notes

Julian Stern (Author)

Julian Stern is Professor of Education and Religion and Dean of Education and Theology at York St John University. Previously, he was a school teacher for fourteen years and employed at various universities for sixteen years. He has published eleven books and numerous articles, including The Spirit of the School (2009), Getting the B--- to Do Their Homework (second edition, 2009), Schools and Religions: Imagining the Real (2007) and Teaching Religious Education: Researchers in the Classroom (2006).


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