Well, it isn’t at all newsworthy to observe that it was a very warm weekend. Here in the Northeastern United States we experienced temperatures hovering around the 100-degree mark, which is hot even for July. Fool that I am I do not have air conditioning in my home. I really prefer unconditioned air whenever possible. Genius that I am I live in a home shaded by trees and next to a lake. It was plenty hot at my house, but we sat in the shade, sipped our various iced beverages, and did what the weather required…we slowed down.
Like a school closing blizzard in February, I confess, I revel in the luxury of just giving in to nature’s forces and not doing whatever I had planned to do. Ambitions fade away in the face of temperatures too high or too low to navigate. Instead, I am forced to just be. Every time this kind of day happens, I am reminded just how wonderful that just being can be. Indeed, for me this is the very condition necessary for new ideas grow.
This week’s slowdown has reminded me of Neil Postman’s, Teaching as a Conserving Activity. This publication from 1979 was Postman’s re-imagining of arguments made in his earlier work, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Though some saw this follow up as a reversal, it wasn’t really. As Postman put it “Education is best conceived of as a thermostatic activity” (p. 25), offering a counter-argument to the direction of the culture in which it resides. He goes on to say,
The thermostatic view of education is, then, not ideology-centered. It is balance-centered…Its aim at all times is to make visible the prevailing biases of a culture and then, by employing whatever philosophies of education, to oppose them. In the thermostatic view of education, you do not “hold” philosophies. You deploy them.
Now you may think this an interesting thought given all of the discussion of ideology on our campuses and the current state of political discourse, and it is. But I am thinking at a higher level of abstraction. The strongest biases at work in our culture right now are fueled by our technological and media environments. These environments argue for speed and quantity. We want more information, more entertainment, more action, and we want it fast. We cannot have news feeds that have not changed in the last 10 minutes. It is exhausting.
We are not immune to this in higher education. Our curriculum suffers from this impulse for more, more, more. A typical liberal arts major once took up only a third of a student’s educational experience, leaving ample room for minors, semesters abroad, or even changing one’s mind about what to study. Now liberal arts majors are approaching half of the credits in an undergraduate degree and changing majors is hazardous at best.
We are also packing our degrees with other must haves–courses outside of the major that we require because we think students need them. It is no longer enough to have general education requirements to serve as a foundation for college level learning and to insure students understand the ways questions are asked and answered in many disciplines. Now we want our students to take particular general education classes, further limiting their options to make decisions about their own learning.
Our classes are also in an interesting state. Not all, of course, but many classes include an amount of reading and work that might be fine if it were a student’s only class, but in a typical full-time load it is impossible to finish. We are mirroring our hectic culture by saying read more, read faster, go, go, go. Not enough time? Skim and get the highlights a la our news feeds.
It is just too much. Our fear of missing some important idea (FOMI?) is leading to an educational experience that fosters stress, shallowness, and a lack of reflection. If we keep adding to the lists of things our students have to know, how will they ever master some of the fundamentals? When will they have time to learn from mistakes? Where is revision in their learning process? And how will they ever have a moment of insight?
Let’s slow down. Let’s do a little less and see if we can all learn a little more. Let’s remember that revision, reflection, and repeated engagement with a few ideas are the building blocks that will prepare our students to navigate the sea of ideas they will encounter after graduation. Let’s remember that important dates and facts are readily available in digital resources everywhere, but the ability to engage and argue with them productively is in no way intuitive, so we should spend our time on that. Let’s be realistic about how much anyone can really do in a day, a week, or a semester and design for that.
Let’s be that counter-balance to the larger cultural narrative that privileges quantity and speed. Let’s focus on creating an environment that gives all of us time to think and remember how much we can learn from struggling with just one idea. Let’s do slow education.