My opening words to faculty and staff prior to those first days of school are an opportunity to set the stage for the year while allowing us all to think together about what is important going forward. This year I spoke about what it means to be the custodians of learning in today’s world, about how we can create structures to lift up qualities such as compassion and empathy in our community and, finally, how we can tame our love affair with speed and…slow things down.
We love to go fast, get things done, cover as much ground as possible and often at the cost of depth, significance and just plain old good thinking. In our sometimes pauseless worlds, we can sacrifice deep and meaningful dives for the seduction of the surface. We can dull what Alastair Reid calls the “sharp edge of attention,” by trying to do a hundred things sometimes at the same time. And not only that: usually we give ourselves and others credit for doing so. It reminds me of that ancient Greek parable about the hedgehog and the fox: the fox knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one thing, deeply. Somehow, we’ve hitched our wagon singularly on the fox.
A Harvard study, Mapping the Future, positions three, key domains of learning: “the private study, the communal classroom and the world beyond.” I’m wondering if we haven’t sequestered the wonderful power of concentration into that first realm only. What would happen if we began to minister to the quiet and to reward the singular in our classrooms and in our world?
Elizabeth Samet, English professor at West Point and author of Leadership: A Norton Anthology, writes about Jennifer L. Roberts, an art historian at Harvard, who has her students write a long research paper on one, and only one, work of art. She requires first a three-hour session of looking at the object prior to putting pen to paper. In her essay, The Power of Patience, Roberts writes: “What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it…access is not synonymous to learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.”
Samet also tilts her sword a bit at our long-valued and perhaps least-explored value: multitasking. She cites Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which wrote in 2009 that “heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representation in memory.” So, Samet concludes, “It turns out that the most confident multitaskers are the least successful managers of competing activities.” Once again, our love of the fast and the many comes at a cost.
When jousting, my sisters and I would answer any on-target insult with what we thought was the coup de grâce: “it takes one to know one.” I’m not sure I could even count the number of times I talk about “how much I have to do,” or, that favorite metaphor of ours, “how much is on my plate.” The partner to these phrases is the assumed speed with which we have to meet the needs and do something. Compare those phrases with some others such as, “Let me take the time necessary to understand this better,” or “This is so important that it needs more time to broach understanding.” I can count, perhaps on one hand, situations I’ve faced that could not have been better understood with more time, and I can think of many more that would have been well-served to have done so. Slow it all down, go more deeply and learn more.
This past summer we rented a house on one of the San Juan Islands called Lopez. Truth be told, we went to that particular island only because we found a house large enough to hold some of our ever-growing family of in-laws and grandchildren. On our way there, we learned that the nickname for Lopez is “Slowpez.” The “doing” on this island is watching for bald eagles (seen about once a day), looking for orcas (two, spectacular sightings) and…well…just being together. You couldn’t plan for much, and the only plate to be filled was a real one with real food.
I know how difficult it is to honor solitude and to recognize less as more. But slowing down can allow us to catch the light better, to still a room with thought, to, as William Deresiewicz writes in his article, “The End of Solitude,” understand “that solitude enables us to secure the integrity of the self as well as to explore it.” I did a lot of thinking on Slowpez. I did a lot of reading on Slowpez. And I did a lot of good, deep memory-making.