Slow School: The Gift of Liberal Education

Could the “slow food” movement find its partner in holistic, liberal arts education—what we might properly call “slow school”?

When I was a freshman in college, my first-year seminar professor was Dr. Ann Brady, a former-nun-turned-English-professor, who had flowing red hair and oversized eyeglasses, and who often lamented about the phlegm she would find in the English building’s drinking fountain. I came to know her as a joyful person, but she was no-nonsense in the classroom. Faced with 18-year-olds slouching in their chairs, asking questions about what would be on the midterm, Dr. Brady insisted that we read literature more slowly and with fewer concerns about what we were supposed to be getting out of it. “These books will take time,” she said. “You’ve got to be willing to waste time with them.”

This advice to “waste” time with books and learning has stuck with me. I wrote about it in my own recent book, Neighbor Love through Fearful Days, which is, in part, about learning to attend to the painfully slow, “long emergencies” (James Howard Kunstler) created by airborne viruses, white supremacy, and ecological degradation. I thought of Dr. Brady again when attending the NetVUE Regional Conference, “Food and Vocation,” at Wingate University earlier this month. The conference began with local mead and wine from Stardust Cellars and concluded with bread-baking with baker and public theologian Kendall Vanderslice. Between them was an incredible keynote address by Norman Wirzba about the power of savoring slow food in a consumerist culture bent on “optimizing” food productivity, treating living creatures as “units of production,” and making “food” indigestible, so that it can pass right through us and have us quickly back (paying) for more.

Keynote address by Norman Wirzba, NetVUE Regional Conference, Wingate University

Learning to savor means learning the slow work of wonder, of honoring life’s mysteries, of cherishing the soil and its many gifts. This depends on opening up a wider, less controllable “register of inquiry” and developing habits of attention that reading, writing, and contemplation also cultivate. In this light, I wonder whether Dr. Brady and Norman Wirzba aren’t really after the same thing. Could the “slow food” movement find its partner in holistic, liberal arts education—what we might properly call “slow school”?

It seems to me that savoring slow food has everything to do with recognizing the giftedness of life and responding with gratitude for the flourishing of all: that is, with living out our vocations. Wirzba asks us, “If we can’t savor raspberries and frozen custard, how can we savor and cherish one another and our lands?”

The liberal in liberal arts means approaching mysteries with this wide register, with an openness and receptivity to something that we are trying to understand (literally, to stand under, and thus honor with proper humility). The arts part means that liberal arts education is more like learning to paint (or garden) than asserting one’s will and mastering a subject. Teaching and learning take a good deal of time. Skills, knowledge, and dispositions grow, but only with faith in a process that can’t be controlled or hurried. Education for vocation seems even slower still. It takes time to discern one’s own and others’ giftedness, develop competencies, and attend to the needs of others so that whole communities (human and nonhuman) might flourish.  Like baking your own bread, becoming liberally educated and discerning authentic callings requires trust, humility, patience, and the learned disposition of delight. Like putting seeds in the soil, nurturing young plants, and hoping for fruit some years later, educating college students is a humble and mysterious process that is hurried and controlled to the detriment of all of us.

Unfortunately, the slow work of such cultivation is, like other gifts, difficult to measure and easy to mistake for inefficiencies, luxuries, or a waste of time and energy. We thus tend to maximize efficiency while we “deliver” education and students “consume” course material (often without digesting it). We market education as an investment with financial returns and then value those parts of the curriculum that garner the most student-consumers or produce the highest incomes. Many of our institutions rebrand the liberal arts to follow suit. Being broadly educated looks good in the job market, we tell our students. Majoring in English, philosophy, or history is a good way to get a high score on the LSAT.

Teaching itself might soon become an old-fashioned word for administering education and delivering course content—something that AI might do more effectively, if by “effective” we mean efficient. Learning, too, might soon seem like either a luxury or a waste—something for which students who pursue grades and a degree won’t make time.

I think it is out of such fears that I have been so drawn to the language of “gift” recently. (See my prior blog postings here.) Gifts worth giving and receiving cannot be properly valued quantitatively, much less hoarded, invested as capital, or commodified within the market economy. They are exchanged, and they do circulate, however. Indeed, according to Lewis Hyde’s remarkable The Gift, they must constantly be re-gifted in order to remain gifts. They even produce something like debt—a debt of gratitude. But neither the gifting nor the re-gifting that generosity and gratitude inspires can be “undertaken on a pure cost-benefit basis.” In the following passage, Hyde writes of “gift labor,” such as social work and soul work (ministry), but the same point can be made of education:

Their products are not commodities, not things we easily price or willingly alienate [. . .]. Gift labor requires the kind of emotional or spiritual commitment that precludes its own marketing [. . .]. Few jobs are pure gift labor, of course—although a nurse is committed to healing, she is also an actor in the marketplace—but any portion of gift labor in a job will tend to pull it out of the market [. . .].

Lewis Hyde, The Gift

If I am correct that teaching and learning exemplify gift labor as well as nursing, social work, or ministry, then we ought to be finding ways to help mark the difference between the gift economy of liberal arts education and the extractive economy of the marketplace. The former is always within and beside the latter, yet it should not be reducible to it without remainder.

In my first-year college seminar, it was noteworthy that Dr. Brady didn’t tell us to “spend” or “use” a lot of time reading our short stories and poetry. She told us to waste it. The word interrupts our proclivities to approach learning with cost-benefit analysis. It also suggests something profligate and extravagant. She was offering us the gift of liberal education and imploring us to treat it as such. Wirzba, too, continually returns to the language of gift and gratitude. Treating food as gift returns us to a covenantal, moral relationship with one another, other creatures, and the land. Food as commodity, by contrast, would have us save time by forgetting how to savor and love.

Could we find ways to step into classrooms and come to understand one another and our shared enterprise as gifts? Could we even (re)learn to talk with prospective students (and their “paying parents”) about their own giftedness and the gifts we offer? What would we need to stop thinking and saying about liberal arts education to cherish it as the gift that it is?

Jason Mahn is professor of religion and director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College, Rock Island, IL. His essay “The Conflict in Our Callings: The Anguish (and Joy) of Willing Several Things” appeared in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (Oxford 2017). He has recently authored Neighbor Love through Fearful Days: Finding Meaning and Purpose in a Time of Crisis (Fortress 2021) and co-edited So That All May Flourish: The Aims of Lutheran Higher Education (Fortress 2023). For other posts by Jason, click here.

Author: Jason A. Mahn

Jason A. Mahn is Professor of Religion and Director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College in Illinois. He is the author of the essay, “The Conflict in Our Callings: The Anguish (and Joy) of Willing Several Things,” which appeared in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford UP 2017). Jason recently authored Neighbor Love through Fearful Days: Finding Purpose and Meaning in a Time of Crisis (Fortress 2021), and co-edited So That All May Flourish: The Aims of Lutheran Higher Education (Fortress 2023).

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