Slow food? Let's try slow college

Not long ago, my colleagues and I learned an unexpected lesson about education from a campus snack shop.Instea...

Posted: Mar. 1, 2018 1:35 PM
Updated: Mar. 1, 2018 1:35 PM

Not long ago, my colleagues and I learned an unexpected lesson about education from a campus snack shop.

Instead of a traditional dining hall, we put a "grab and go" counter in a new student residence. Millennials, we assumed, valued speed and convenience above all. We figured they wouldn't want to linger at a communal table when they could be hustling off to class or hunkered down in their rooms on their laptops.

Student feedback was immediate and emphatic: They wanted a dining room. They wanted to eat together. They wanted community, and not the virtual kind. And they wanted to take their time.

For years, the slow food movement has made the case for meals as a catalyst for community. The right ingredients plus sufficient time, say proponents, equals something much greater than the sum of its parts.

I think the lesson of the snack shop is that the same equation holds true when it comes to educating our nation's future citizens. And not just in the dining halls, but in the entire way America's four-year colleges and universities deliver the undergraduate experience. Put the right ingredients together, give them ample time and space to mingle, and great things can happen. Call it slow college. Like slow cooking, it's not new. It's long been practiced by venerable institutions in the United States and Europe. And our current American moment, defined by a breakneck digital pace and public discourse that often begins at belligerent and degenerates from there, is exactly the right time to reinvest in this approach.

Acceleration, or decreasing the amount of time it takes to get an undergraduate degree, is a trend in higher education nationwide. Some universities are compressing bachelor's degrees to three years or less. The assumption seems to be that what matters is the amount of content delivered, not the quantity of time invested.

I challenge that thinking.

Our job as educators is not to merely disgorge information and dispense degrees. We should also help shape young people as the citizens, leaders, parents and neighbors they are going to become. Intellectual development and skills training are part of that. But so are emotional and spiritual development. Ethical development. And civic development. All of which take time.

None of this is easy, but it's all within our reach.

For starters, we can do more to help everyone afford a four-year college experience. One argument for fast education is that it's cheaper. No doubt, an immersive, residential education requires substantial investment. But rather than excluding students who can't make that investment, universities should pour whatever resources are available into financial aid. Not every university can eliminate loans, as some have, but all universities can work harder to eliminate cost as a barrier to a complete college education.

Once students are admitted, universities can provide time and space for learning and growth beyond the classroom. On many campuses, a typical full-time student takes 15 credit hours, which translates to spending about 15 hours a week in class. If education ends when students leave the classroom, we're missing a huge opportunity. We should capture as many waking hours as we can by creating 24/7 prospects for social and academic development.

One way we're doing this at Vanderbilt is by replacing traditional housing with residential colleges: communities where students, faculty "heads of house" and visiting scholars live, dine and learn together. Comprehensive four-year residential colleges have existed for centuries, most notably at Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and at Yale, Harvard and Rice here in the United States (though if your first association was Hogwarts, you're not far off).

Adopting this old-world model today might seem counterintuitive. It would certainly be easier and less expensive to house students in conventional dorms. But rather than make college a "grab and go" experience, let's give students the ingredients and time to allow new ideas and perspectives to simmer, blend and marinate. We need to nurture intentional learning communities. Our country will be better for it.

Socially, residential colleges combine people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. In a nation where universities and Southwest Airlines flights may be the last places where we intentionally mix people from starkly different backgrounds, we owe students the time to explore those differences. We owe students the opportunity and the prompting to work, play, debate, and problem-solve together before we launch them into workplaces that are increasingly heterogeneous, or ask them to wade into national conversations about tough issues like racial and gender equality or social justice.

Universities should also give students time to mix academically, so they can interact with a variety of disciplines, thinkers and makers. On our campus, a number of interdisciplinary majors and an intentional increase in shared teaching, research and other collaboration among different departments and colleges have led to future teachers collaborating with future policymakers, English majors learning alongside engineers, and musicians studying molecular biology. While many may think this type of engagement is a given of college life, it's not, and it only happens through deliberate and intentional planning. As a result, graduates leave more well-rounded, with a diverse set of technical and people skills.

My job, of course, is to consider how we can best educate students at a four-year, residential university. But slow college need not only be practiced at schools like mine. Re-evaluating how we think of higher education generally, and putting greater stock in measures that build community and create opportunities for students to learn across disciplines and from one another, is something any post-secondary institution can do. This approach and philosophy will better equip our young people for life after college and help safeguard our democracy.

Champions of the slow food movement say that eating well makes us healthier as a nation. So, I'd argue, does learning well. By giving students time to engage in a more measured, reflective way with what they learn, we produce better-educated citizens: thoughtful people with broader vision, driven by curiosity and unafraid to tackle the complex problems we so urgently face. And by letting students steep in the company of those unlike them, we produce citizens capable of reasoned, civil discourse and cooperation. All of this is essential for maintaining e pluribus unum and trying to fulfill the hopes of the great American project of pluralism.

Let's not make higher education into the equivalent of a drive-through meal, something that gets the job done, but doesn't really nourish us. Let's do better by our kids and by our country. Like good cooking or anything else worth doing, a good education takes time.

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