A Manifesto for Slow Learning

Alan Levine over at CogDogBlog used to be a runner. Now, he walks.  He does a great job of describing why he finds walking so much more fulfilling than running; most importantly, walking encourages him to “find the world bigger or more wonderous or more colorful or more vibrant in sound.”

Walking cultivates a different kind of cognitive platform and sensorium:  longer attention span, deeper engagement with the world, expanded perception, maximum consciousness. One of the first great proponents of ambulatory epistemology was Walt Whitman.  “I loafe and invite my soul,” Whitman says right at the start of his epic poem of wandering, “Song of Myself.” “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”  Whitman is the poet of democracy, of brother-sisterhood, free verse, etc.  But one of his most revolutionary acts is simply to “loafe.”  All around him whirs the busy commercial world of mid-19th century America, and there stands Whitman – – eyeballing his blade of grass.  This is an emergent politics of refusal, a great existential negation of Whitman’s contemporary society.  His comrade in the revolutionary tactics of refusal is Melville’s Bartleby, whose own assertion of radical loafing – – “I would prefer not too” – – completely freaks out his Wall Street lawyer-boss.

Loafing is an often unacknowledged plank in the anti-capitalist politics of the American Renaissance.  In “Walking“, Thoreau celebrates the act of sauntering.  “Every walk,” he tells his reader, playing on the etymology of “saunter” (fr. “sans” “terre” – – without home),  “Is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of infidels.”  Thoreau’s “infidels” are the Church and the State, institutions that seek to confine us to the “highway” rather than Nature’s “freedom and wildness.”  The walker rambles like a camel – – “the only beast which ruminates when walking.”  He or she resists enclosure, disdains the fences and walls of private property,  and enjoys the commons.  “To enjoy a thing exclusively,” says Thoreau, “is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it.”

If schools are the knowledge factories of capitalist consciousness, surely one of the most important, but hidden elements of the curriculum is  teaching students the bourgeois meaning of work-time.  Schedules, lesson units, syllabi, deadlines, tests – – all these things train students to understand work-time as rational, orderly, and above all, as efficient.  Time is something to control; and so, time becomes a medium of control.  Who can forget that primal scene of schooling in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – – where Stephen Dedalus’s daydreaming in class is interrupted by the entrance of Father Dolan and his terrifying pandybat?  “At your work, all of you!” Dolan shouts. “We want no lazy idle loafers here, lazy idle little schemers. At your work, I tell you. Father Dolan will be in to see you every day. Father Dolan will be in tomorrow.”  It will take only about 75 years until Father Dolan meets his match in that superhero of all-American loafing, Jeff Spicoli:

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The point is: we need a lot more walking in school. But, walking along the lines of Whitman, Thoreau, and Spicoli. Or, better yet, more Zapatista walking. One of the big slogans from the Zapatista movement is “Preguntando caminamos,” e.g. “Asking we walk.” This motto has been picked up by popular resistance movements across the globe, particularly in the ethics of “horizontalidad” worked out by workers and citizens in the wake of the 2001 Argentinian economic implosion.  “Asking we walk” describes a new kind of politics because it refuses “telling” and “ordering”; the path forward is charted as we go along,  as we observe, reflect, and talk about  the realities unfolding around us.  We walk together and, asking each other, we co-create a sense of direction and purpose.  The rational, teleological time envisioned by the planners of social change dissolves into the radical, democratic, dynamic, and dialogical platform of “our time.”

Forget lesson units, class hours, test preparation, the deadlines imposed by semesters and quarters, the dictates of coverage and orderly curriculum: we need to embrace “slow learning,” a slow learning inspired by Whitman’s loafing and the Zapatista’s “preguntando caminamos.”  Education needs to catch up with slow food, slow travel, and slow thinking.  Slow learning – – walking together, asking – – means a deeper, more authentic engagement with material and texts.   It means a more democratic relationship between teacher and student.  And, it means slowing down and observing student learning as if it were Whitman’s “spear of summer grass.”  Slowing down reveals a whole new world, which requires whole new ways of reorganizing work, time, authority, and purpose.

Far from making education more efficient, I believe technology can help us all – – teachers and students – – become slow learners. That’s a topic for another post. Time now to walk on out of here . . .

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