At the start of the 2012/2013 academic year, the Dean of Shimer College, Barbara Stone, focused on the ways busy-ness shapes us in her convocation talk. It was a delightful, wry, and deeply important talk. It reminded listeners to ask the following question about higher education: are we better off if we "get through it" more quickly? It reminded us to ask about the value of pausing, of slowness, even, perhaps, of dawdling. I return to those themes today, because I am in need of a reminder that busy-ness is not everything. In fact, it is not much, in the great scheme of things. And, perhaps more importantly, education is a process embedded in time.
A mentor of mine, Peggy Williams, Emerita President of Ithaca College and Lyndon State College, sent me a book some years ago which speaks to this theme. The book is entitled In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed. The author, Carl Honore, writes about slow food, slow cities, and, what surprised me at the time I first read it, slow education. While many of us are familiar with the first of these, a movement that began in Italy and now has "chapters" across the globe, the section on slow education may be less familiar. And yet, it is so obvious once one thinks about it. There is, in fact, a slow movement in many arenas of life, resisting the ways speeding up seems so obviously crucial to all of who we are. Why is becoming educated in less time better than taking more time? Why are we rushing? What happens to how we learn if we take our time?
While the slow education movement seems to focus a bit on kids, the possibilities are much wider. For example, we often meausre the efficacy of colleges and universities by focusing on what percentage complete in 4 years. Of course, this is really about seeing if colleges and universities are fulfilling their promises to enable completion in that time. Having said that, as we face economic challenges, some universities are approaching the future with an eye to the 3 year undergraduate degree. Is a speedier degree a better degree?
Thought about another way, the word pause is relevant. In this case, the fear of "gap years" and the fear of stepping out of school may be as relevant as the need to pause and consider one's reading and writing, problem solving and dialogue as one pursues a college degree. Here are some words of wisdom from Sharon Parks, The Critical Years: Young Adults and the Search for Meaning, Faith and Commitment (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986):
The modern academy had its genesis in the contemplative monastic tradition, but we have in large measure lost the essence of our heritage through our inattention to the power of pause. Though pause is essential to insight, the structure of the academy offers little time for contemplation. Congested urban campuses, lockstep class schedules, mass-feeding dining halls, crowded dormitories with little private space, interminable committee meetings and office appointments, competition for grades, pressures for ‘excellence’ in research and teaching evaluated by the requisite amount of publication – all conspire to erode the quality of contemplation essential to the achievement of wisdom. Though the academy engenders a good deal of conscious conflict, it often fails to allow the pause so necessary to the gestation of new images and insight. . . (pp. 145-146)
Words like slow and pause, as for me the word Shimer, remind us that thinking well is not always about thinking now, this moment, immediately, and as quickly as possible. It is also about stopping and reflecting.