Can Middlebury Spark a ‘Slow Learning’ Movement?

By Guest Contributor

In December 1989, delegates from 15 countries endorsed the Slow Food Manifesto, which began: “Born and nurtured under the sign of Industrialization, this century first invented the machine and then modeled its lifestyle after it. Speed became our shackles. We fell prey to the same virus: ‘the fast life’ that fractures our customs and assails us even in our own homes, forcing us to ingest ‘fast-food.’”

The manifesto then made a case for slow food, “to be taken with slow and prolonged enjoyment … [to] let us rediscover the rich varieties and aromas of local cuisines.”

For the last 25 years, the slow food movement has grown and endured, dedicated to the proposition that by honoring traditional and regional approaches and celebrating food’s creation, we will enjoy it – and the company of others – that much more.

In September 2015, might the Middlebury community be ready to make a case for ‘slow learning’?

For isn’t it true that higher education has, in large part, fallen prey to “speed’s shackles”? Fast learning is all around us, an empty-calorie version of the way the liberal arts should be: too much reading, too many problem sets, too little reflection, too little time. Fast learning is advanced placement, double majors and extra minors, students on-the-go, cramming and then forgetting, professors who respond ‘busy’ and only ‘busy’ when asked how they are doing. Colleges and universities that have succumbed to the allure of fast education are (again from the Slow Food Manifesto) among “the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency.”

And let’s face it: Middlebury at times falls into this multitude. Too often, we rush, we assign more, we expect more, we pursue more. And perhaps as a result, we learn less. And yet: haven’t many at Middlebury recently been planting the seeds of something else?

All around us in the fall of 2015, don’t we see the growth of a better way? Of slow learning, an approach that declares ‘less is more,’ that promotes the ‘read’ and then the ‘re-read,’ that brings mindfulness into the classroom, that honors students who unplug, reflect and actively raise questions about their own identity and agency in this complicated age.

Slow learning at Middlebury is the “Sophomore Seminar in the Liberal Arts,” in which students ask: “What is the good life and how shall I live it?” It’s a First Year Seminar that starts with ten minutes of silence. A quiet, early-morning trek on a crust of snow to gather bird-band data. A session of Aikido followed by a dinner in Atwater Commons. A hockey practice that begins and ends with a skate on a frozen pond. Slow learning at Middlebury is a timeless question posed by Professor Murray Dry.

In other words, slow learning is no mystery. It’s what we know how to do when we don’t succumb to the whipped-up frenzy of our time.

At the recent Bread Loaf faculty meeting, an experienced colleague called for a ‘culture shift,’ a kind of community reboot after Middlebury’s recent spring semester, so full of heartbreak and sorrow. How can students, staff and faculty help to effect this change? Each of us, for starters, can commit to the idea that less is more: joining less clubs, scheduling less meetings, placing less on the syllabus. Other steps are easy (OK, maybe they sound easy): turn off the smartphone, close the laptop, take a walk with nowhere in particular to go. (Too addicted myself to social media and electronic connectedness, I remain convinced that this can be done!)

Perhaps the most important single step that each of us can take is simple: to treat each other as human beings. Not as sophomores, not as assistant professors, not as custodial staff, not as deans, but rather as human beings. Human beings, with all of the complexities celebrated by Walt Whitman when he wrote: “I contain multitudes.”

For isn’t it true that human beings are the true ingredients of a community of learning? Thus, as the slow food movement celebrates timeless, local ingredients – heirloom tomatoes, crawfish, wild rice, native corn, spring lamb – shouldn’t we celebrate the golden stuff that we are made of? Earnest learners, celebrated teachers and researchers, dedicated counselors, thoughtful stewards, friends and allies; these good folks and more comprise our daily dishes. And critically, like even the best culinary ingredients, we humans have our flaws, our bruises. Let us celebrate and savor those too. To honor each human being among us, to savor the human experience ¬– this may be the essence of all great recipes for global liberal learning.

From slow food to slow learning: is this a good metaphor? If so, is Middlebury ready to take the lead?

Jon Isham is the Director of Center for Social Entrepreneurship (CSE) and Professor of Economics at Middlebury College.

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