The Slow University?

Not long ago I delivered a Slow sermon in Vienna.

Well, not exactly a sermon. More a secular keynote to a group of high-octane business folk.

But the venue itself could not have been more holy: a thousand-year-old crypt with gilded altarpieces, flickering candles and burning incense. With thick walls blocking out phone and WiFi signals, the silence felt almost spiritual.

After my talk on the virtues of slowing down, the church’s monsignor, who also attended the soirée, came up to me to make a confession.

“As I was listening to you, I suddenly realised how easy it is for all of us to get infected by the impatience of the modern world,” he said. “Lately, I must admit, I have been praying too fast.”

We both laughed at the irony of a man of the cloth behaving like a man in a suit, but his transgression underlined just how far the virus of hurry has spread.

These days, it’s not just high-octane business people living in fast forward. Even those who devote their lives to serene contemplation in thousand-year-old crypts can end up racing the clock.

My encounter with the fast-praying monsignor came to mind the other day in Durham, England.

I was up north attending a seminar entitled The Slow University? Its purpose: To explore whether higher-education could benefit from an injection of slowness.

Now, if you haven’t set foot on a campus for a while, your first response to that proposition might be: Isn’t university life already slow enough?

Surely it’s all about sandal-wearing professors leafing through dusty tomes and students rolling out of bed at noon to watch TV quiz shows. And think of all that vacation time!

Actually, that caricature bears scant resemblance to university life today.  The rising cost of tuition has helped to change the mood. But campus-dwellers also face the same forces that fuel the culture of speed everywhere else: the obsession with targets and measurable outcomes, competition, budget cuts, technology, social media, the cult of multitasking.

Like most institutions in this age of austerity, universities are under pressure to do more with less. Academics have to work longer hours and publish or perish; students feel compelled to rush through their degree with jam-packed schedules. Walk around any campus and you’ll find most of the denizens tethered to beeping tablets and vibrating iPhones.

The Durham University seminar was a wake-up call.

About 30 academics and postgraduates from a range of disciplines gathered in a cramped room to chew over what speed and slowness mean to college life. Their chief lament: the cult of speed is crowding out high-calibre thinking.

“You just don’t have enough time to mull things over, to let an idea simmer in the back of your mind, to build an argument slowly, ” said one professor. “It’s all about getting whatever thoughts you have right now out into the world, even if they’re only half-baked.”

This is a lamentable state of affairs.

Of course, thinking fast can be immensely useful. Sometimes an off-the-cuff tweet or a heat-of-the-moment blog is just what the doctor ordered. But not always.

Often it pays to think more slowly. When we are calm, unhurried and free from stress and distractions, the brain slips into a richer, more nuanced and more creative mode of thought. Some call this Slow Thinking, and the best minds have always understood its power.

Milan Kundera talked about “the wisdom of slowness.” Albert Einstein was famous for spending ages staring into space in his office at Princeton University. Charles Darwin called himself a “slow thinker.”

That slower, deeper thinking paves the way for the sort of ideas that turn the world upside down and win Nobel prizes. It cannot be measured, timetabled or accelerated. It cannot be switched on or off to meet someone else’s target. It simply happens. Or rather it happens when people are given the time, space and freedom to let the mind wander and play with ideas.

In our impatient, data-drenched, turbo-charged world, we need Slow Thinking more than ever. As Boris Pasternak said in 1917: “In an epoch of speed, one must think slowly.”

Perhaps universities, which first sprang up as havens for deep thinking and patient learning, could lead the charge.

Already, people on campuses around the world are rallying to the idea that slowing down would foster better thinking, learning and research. Just look at the movements for Slow Scholarship and Slow Science.

Or at the letter penned by the dean of Harvard’s undergraduate school urging students to shift into a lower gear. Its title: Slow Down: Getting More Out Of Harvard By Doing Less

The Durham seminar was just a starting point, with more questions than answers. The aim is to build a series of debates to thrash out whether our universities should reconnect with their inner tortoise and how to make that happen.

Where will it all lead? What would a Slow university actually look like?

At this point, no one really knows. But I’m praying (slowly, of course!) that something useful comes out of this….