Slow food, slow cities, slow schools — the concept of Slow, as it has developed from the Slow Food movement, is proving to be one of the leading ideas of our time. But it’s not really so surprising, since Slow Food emerged from the concerns of citizens rather than the ambitions of politicians, and has developed its own momentum through the strength of its ideas. The Slow Food movement has been shaped at every stage by a moral purpose: to determine what it is good to eat, having regard for the interests of producers, customers and the environment. Slow is about understanding what it is to live and flourish. And human flourishing, in the view of some philosophers, is exactly what education should be about; it nourishes the mind as food does the body. It makes perfect sense to take the humanistic basis of Slow Food and apply it to the way we run schools.
There are several aspects of Slow Food that resonate with the aims of education. Eating has a social dimension, and so does learning; to see schooling merely as a solitary affair — the student absorbing knowledge for the sake of passing a test — is an enormous limitation on the scope of pedagogy. Just as the 2004 Terra Madre meeting confirmed the importance of food communities, so a school should bring together teachers, students, parents and other local interests to establish a learning community. Children learn informally from their surroundings, just as our palate is nourished by our everyday experience. The ‘slow school’ cannot be an isolated outpost, purveying decontextualized knowledge itemized by some central agency.
It will also respect tradition. Tools such as information technology are certainly helpful in modern society, but to study the humanities is to gain a perspective on our cultural legacy that permits students to interpret and influence the world they will inherit. Just as biodiversity requires us to protect traditional knowledge, so the slow school must protect our culture even though it may be unfashionable to do so. For example, to encourage schools to specialize in particular fields, as is currently the case in England, does not advance the educational interests of students, who need to acquire a broad understanding of the influences that bear upon life in its entirety. A sound education, in an age as complex as ours, cannot be reduced to simple doctrines.
All these dimensions of the Slow metaphor emphasise the importance of humanistic solutions. As Carlo Petrini put it, in his remarks at the opening ceremonies of Terra Madre: “The wisdom and know-how within food communities must not be threatened by the logic of productivity, by the profit motive, or by lack of respect for the environment”. In education, the threat comes from national schemes for judging schools by the ability of students to pass standardized tests. These misguided forms of accountability undermine real learning and only succeed in lowering the morale of students and teachers. Requiring students to conform to agreed norms does not stimulate the imagination.
In the same way, manufacturing food to agreed formulas does not stimulate the digestion, as one soon discovers on eating fast food. There is, indeed, an analogy between the fast food outlet, selling burgers that take little skill to prepare and are by definition as uniform as possible, and production-line schools that require all students to conform to predetermined ‘targets’ that discourage teachers from pursuing new ideas and strategies. Yet standards-based schooling is now the preferred option in most English-speaking countries, where educational ‘fast food’ is served up in schools differentiated only by the names or labels attached to them. And it is no coincidence that the food provided for lunch in these ‘fast schools’ is usually prepared offsite, re-heated by unskilled staff, and often contains unpleasant additives.
TO BE CONTINUED
Maurice Holt is Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Colorado at Denver