Twenty or so years ago, during my first stay in Chengdu, I and three friends sat in on a Chinese landscape painting (shanshuihua 山水画) class at the university where we taught English. The teacher’s method was to paint a scene at the front of the class, discussing what he was doing as he did it, while we all attempted to copy it. When he had finished, he would walk around the room looking at everyone’s work and making suggestions for its improvement. Until he reached me. Then he would look at my painting, chuckle deep in his throat, pat me on the shoulder, and, saying “Slowly, slowly …,” walk on to the next student.
I was only slightly disappointed by my failure as a painter. Much as I loved the Chinese style of painting, I was fairly certain that the visual arts were never going to be my forte. Even if he couldn’t teach me how to paint, my teacher gave me a great story that has gotten laughs for over two decades now.
Ironically, his words–“Slowly, slowly …”–could be a mantra for me now. I realized several years ago that if there was one word of advice I would give to the world and everyone in it right now, it would be “slowly.” We have become addicted to speed. To be sure, part of the blame can be laid at the feet of neoliberal global capitalism which actually assumes unlimited and continuous growth as a precondition to prosperity (and almost no one sees the problem in that!)–not to mention that it sees humans and everything else as mere fuel to be consumed in the production of more wealth for an ever-shrinking number of beneficiaries. Part of the blame, however, rests with our own desire for ever more and ever new “things.” The two are not unconnected, neoliberal global capitalism would hardly be practical without rampant consumerism. But we can’t use that fact to deny our own culpability in creating a culture where anything more than two weeks old is obsolete, anything that demands more than five minutes of our time takes too long, and the only way to be cool is to be engaged in a never-ending quest for more adrenaline-inducing novelty of some sort.
None of this is new. The “slow movement” has spread to many parts of life already and has many eloquent supporters arguing for it (ironically, usually in the frenetic world of consumer-driven publishing, but sometimes there really are no alternatives). I myself have been a fan of the slow food movement for some time. As a traveler, even before I was aware of the slow movement, I developed a love-hate relationship with airplanes. I need them to get to places like China, but I much prefer slower forms of travel. Within China, I take trains and buses. Within Chengdu, I bicycle, ride public transport, or just walk. “Slow traveling” is far more enjoyable than jet-setting and lets you experience the experience of travel. Wasn’t that the point to begin with? Several years ago, I dreamed up the idea of “slow medicine”–true healing takes time, so give yourself the time to heal properly and stop looking for “magic bullets”–only to find that some MDs had already beaten me to it.
Today I discovered a book applying the slow principle to the academic world. Contrary to the popular image of professors leisurely drinking coffee, academic life is currently in a death spiral of demands for increased productivity coupled with a complete lack of concern for whether that productivity is actually meaningful in any way. Universities are one of the places where speed is most destructive. Teaching, learning, and research are all activities that can’t be rushed. You can’t force students to grasp a difficult concept. They have to internalize it slowly. You can’t force yourself to leap to a truly new and important realization. It takes long, slow, contemplative work.
Looking at the slow movement through the lens of academia makes one thing very clear: the most pernicious root of speed in our society is the belief that business is the best model for everything. How often do we hear that universities, hospitals, or the government, should behave more like businesses. If they did, we’re told, they would be more efficient, more productive, better. But a university isn’t a business; it’s a place of learning. A hospital isn’t a business; it’s a place of healing. The government isn’t a business; it’s the mechanism by which we try to improve our society, to forge “a more perfect union.”
The often unspoken premise behind this valorization of the business model is the demand for profit. Every institution is expected to produce money for someone. The purpose of a university thus ceases to be learning and becomes generating revenue and equipping students to obtain high-paying jobs. The purpose of hospitals ceases to be healing and becomes treating those patients and conditions that are most profitable for the hospital itself. The purpose of government ceases to be unifying and improving our society and becomes protecting the political and economic power of whatever group has control at the moment.
The ubiquitousness of this drive for profit is seen in the justifications given for our actions: eating well-prepared food is good because it will keep people; providing affordable education is good because it will create a workforce that can continue growing our economy; protecting the environment is good because it will create new jobs; making healthcare affordable is good because it will reduce the secondary costs of lost wages and more expensive treatments later on. The truth of these statements is irrelevant. We shouldn’t need to justify doing what we know is morally right in economic terms. The fact that we feel the need to do so reveals the pernicious way that profit has wormed its way into the core of our thinking.
As long as profit is the supreme good of our social life, slowing down will be impossible. Slowing down is going to cost money. Slow food is more expensive than fast food. Taking time to heal will mean people are out of the workplace for longer periods of time. Slow travel is impossible in a one-week vacation. Proper education requires more professors and more time spent with students, and that will cost money. The questions we need to ask ourselves are: what kind of life to we want to live; what kind of world do we want to live in? We need to slow down and give these questions some serious thought.