Slow Knowledge

TurtleFinishIt’s difficult not to feel the weight of time.  Especially as the holidays approach.  It surrounds us; it saturates us.  As if always there, and always rational!  Our cars go from zero to 60 in _______ seconds.  Our printers print thirty pages per minute.  Our copiers make sixty-five copies per minute.  People in the office are excited because soon we’ll have an even faster one … and it will be networked so we don’t have to “waste all that time” walking to the printer. Email.  Email on my phone! Twitter and Facebook updates wherever I go!!

Certainly this is true at schools where I worked for the past 30+ years. Parents want their children to complete Algebra in 8th grade.  “How else can they get to Calculus before they apply to college?”   Students want to get ahead.  AP this, Honors that … “How many AP’s does the school offer?”  Teachers would rush to get final assignments posted … after all, it is the end of the semester.  “I need to make sure I cover _______ by the time the semester ends, or I’ll never get to _______ by Spring Break.”   Students try to complete everything they have not done up to this point.  “Can I still make up the work I owe you from September?”    … teachers get crazy, kids get crazier, parents get craziest!  Or is that parents get crazy, kids get crazier and teachers get ….   Whatever … It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that education is not really supposed to be all about speed, about quick answers, about solving problems and getting work done quickly.

I realize it is sometimes difficult to imagine a different approach.  Who can argue with the value of the quick and facile mind?  But although we do not think much about it – and we rarely find it in schools – a different approach is possible.  There are other kinds of knowledge than the sort to which we usually attend in school.

Essayist, poet, novelist, farmer, Wendell Berry, writes about the need to teach and learn things that can only be learned slowly, things that we simply cannot learn quickly, that we cannot learn with the speed we have come to expect from excellent students doing excellent work in excellent classrooms at excellent schools.  David Orr, professor of Environmental Design at Oberlin College calls it slow knowledge.  For so many of us, it has become difficult even to imagine what these two gentlemen might mean.

In his book The Clock of The Long Now, Stewart Brand tells a story of the Swedish Forestry Department reporting in 1980 to the Navy that the 20,000 oak trees they had ordered were ready for delivery.   The trees were ordered in 1829.  I do not know whether the story is true, but I want it to be.

“Absurd!!  Wait 150 years for an order to be ready!?!  No one would do that.  It makes no sense!!”

Really??  Ask any carpenter over the age of forty, and s\he will tell you that “lumber is just not the same as it used to be.”  Although we have been able to breed trees that grow taller, straighter and faster, mature wood – wood from trees that have grown slowly – is very different.  It’s stronger.  It shrinks less.  It is … well … it is better.   You just can’t grow that sort of wood quickly.

Of course, It is nearly impossible truly to have this conversation with many educators. Speed is all but synonymous with progress and success.  Knowing the answers quickly will get you higher SAT scores, higher AP scores.  Surely it is good to be able to find the area of this and the perimeter of that … very quickly.   To solve the chemistry or physics problem very quickly.  To know when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, who signed it, and why… very quickly.  We applaud those who code quickly, who write quickly, who gain acceptance to college early … those who can quickly recite all the states and their capitals, the Presidents and their Vice Presidents.  Their wives.  Their home states.  Their ….

But how much more important is it to learn to evaluate evidence?  How to recognize patterns when direct observation reveals nothing?  What are the qualities of character?  Of beauty?  Of courage?  How does one bring about justice?  What does a careful and thoughtful evaluation reveal about our ethical landscape?  How do we ignite imagination?  What does it take to sustain a community?  To be kind and compassionate?  How do we listen to the whispers of the world?   The whispers heard by animals before an earthquake?  The whispers heard by farmers before a rain or a particularly hard winter ahead?

Why?  I mean really, why?  Why do we want to insist that our schools ignore the slow, the enduring, that which has taken lifetimes to learn, centuries to learn, civilizations to learn?  Why should our schools ignore wisdom, to be driven instead by media, markets or elections?    After all, isn’t it wisdom that we can call on – in fact it is all we have to call on – to discover, to grow, to remember the courage we need to engage all those unknowns yet to come in our lives, all those unknowns guaranteed to come in our lives?!

I am not suggesting we throw out “the curriculum.”  “Fast knowledge” has given us much.  In so many ways our lives are better now than they have ever been.  Our food is safer and more plentiful, we have warm homes, public libraries and freedoms to explore and express the likes of which were never before contemplated.  (Yes, yes, yes … I know … war, aviary flu, mad cow, shrinking public funds, the Patriot Act … But the point is still correct!)

The problems we face today are many, and our children see and fear them.  They fear that during their lifetimes they will see the end of so much of what they have come to see as necessity.  They are living at that time we first heard of when we were their ages.  A time when the earth will warm appreciably because of our industry.  A time when oil and other fossil fuels will have an end in site.  A time when clean water and clean air will no longer be guaranteed.  Problems … BIG problems.

During such times, human beings find hope and direction for a better tomorrow, not from the next timesaving invention or quick and abundant access to and processing of information.  Yes, sometimes they can help. But more often, hope and direction come from a sense – a deep, slow and abiding sense – of our collective cultural heritage, our human heritage, our organic heritage.  A sense of the dilemmas and struggles with which people have wrestled for years, for centuries, for millennia.  A deep-down sense of the effort we need in order to come to terms with values, with morality, with questions of good and evil.  An understanding that individuals and communities have faced problems before.  BIG problems.  The Plague.  Revolutions.  Fascism. ..

And those senses, those deep and elusive senses come slowly; we learn them slowly.  They are things with no easy answers, things around which we must circle and circle, around and around, again and again and again.  Slowly, intentionally.

Some places (some teachers, some parents…) do a pretty good job of remembering this, of reminding one another of the value of the slow and enduring.  But as I said, this is a difficult time of the year, a crazy time of year, a time when it is easy for schools to become even crazier than they usually are.

So I offer this, as reminder to us all, that so much of enormous value will not, will never, can never be done quickly, be learned quickly.

Wishing you all the best, the fullest, the richest, warmest, sweetest … and slowest of seasons.

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