Slow knowledge: How slower can be faster?

Posted on November 1, 2011 by

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I just returned from an excellent conference on the future of diplomacy organised by the College of Europe in Bruges. The conference, and my visit to the college in picturesque Bruges, inspired me to think about ‘slow knowledge’, similar to the Italian concept of ‘slow food’. The slow food movement began as a reaction to fast food. Eating slowly is healthier. Eating is also a social ritual which goes beyond providing energy for pure survival. Moreover, eating slowly is part of the collective wisdom of mankind. ‘Don’t eat so fast! You should chew your food 30 times!’” – an entreaty echoed by grandparents worldwide.[1]

Learning, like digestion, is challenged by our biological limitations. On average, our short-term memory can hold eight pieces of information, which are forgotten quickly when new information arrives. The latest cognitive research shows that the consolidation of long-term memory takes much longer through a complex interplay of the cortex and the hippocampus. Teaching experience and cognitive research show that new knowledge is best acquired through a gradual process that takes time. If the knowledge is crammed in all at once, learning is not possible. Paradoxically, slower can be faster. Books online, millions of podcasts and information at our fingertips cannot push these biological and cognitive limitations that we, as humans, have.

Increasingly typical

This is why, in this era of obsession with speed, my visit to the College of Europe inspired me to think of  ‘slow knowledge’. The College of Europe is based in an old building with a big library. There are computers, but the rush of technologically driven places is absent.  I was particularly fascinated that at the conference itself, only about 15 out of 150 participants in the conference room used notebooks and iPads. It is not surprising that the conference generated a high quality discussion. Participants were present both physically and mentally, unlike in most of today’s conferences, where at least half of the participants are somewhere else via the Internet, although physically sitting in the conference room itself.  Bruges, often called the Venice of the North, provides an appropriate setting for slow learning.  Ancient buildings, small streets, water channels, the many pubs and restaurants are well-suited for reflection and thinking.

During the official dinner, I mentioned this ‘slow knowledge’ concept to a few of my hosts. Their reaction was indicative. They were apologetic for the fact that the College is not fast and ‘modern’ enough. In the current lingo of speed and efficiency, ‘slow’ has negative connotations, even when it is actually faster, as is the case with learning.


[1] Slow food movement focus is broader than food consumption. It promotes healthy, traditional and locally grown food.

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Posted in: diplomacy, Education