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    Better Off: Education, Literacy and the Speed of Life

    March 13, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    Shortcuts lead to emergency mending sessions in order to piece back in what was cut out, to lengthen what was shortened: Computer users, cramped in a cubicle all day long, jogging around the block. Bureaucrats and financiers, zooming ahead along their career paths, then reversing gears to attend school concerts, ball games, and parent meetings. Captives of the technological environment fleeing for brief weekends to mountains, beaches, and rustic cabins.

    -Eric Brende

    In one chapter of Better Off {The Sounds of Silence}, Eric Brende describes a typical evening in his back-to-the-land life. He describes the crickets singing, the fireflies, and also the deep quiet.

    And then he talks about one of my favorite subjects, his ability to read.

    Brende had made a number of attempts at reading the tome The Education of Henry Adams. Don’t we all have books like this? Books we want to read but just can’t seem to get through, for whatever reason? Brende writes:

    Tonight, to the flicker of the kerosene lamp, I made inexplicable, rapid progress.


    Why was the book suddenly so clear and full of insight to me? The subject matter was largely autobiographical and not directly related to my field of interest.

    In the modern university, with its rapid turnover of assignments and fast-paced technology, the human brain is treated as just another processing device and is expected to keep pace with electronic blips. But Adam’s thought, ponderous and discursive as it was, could not be summarily ingested. He had lived within a culture whose movements were still largely limited by the speed of horses; the ambling cadences of his writing preserved this pace…

    This was the secret: to grasp his meaning, you had to be living it.

    I wonder how many books I’ve been unable to get through because my life was too fast to pick up on ideas and inferences that required a slower pace. Surely, my ability to read a book has improved as the many years of pregnancy have required of me a small, unhurried life. {Here, of course, I don’t mean my ability to read in a technical sense, but the essence of reading, which is the understanding of the author’s ideas. Without comprehension, there is no reading.}

    My temptation here is to cut and paste the whole chapter for you, but that would be a spoiler and also probably illegal. Brende talks about speed and time, that sense that the faster we go, the farther behind we are. He writes:

    In being slower, time is more capacious. The event is only in the moment. By speeding through life with technology, you reduce what any given moment can hold. By slowing down, you expand it.

    This is one of my primary concerns with education. There is this sense that what we in America are doing is failing and so the solution presented to us is to cram more into the child’s life. We start them younger, we keep them older, we fill every inch of every space in their lives with the concerted effort to teach, to train, to mend what seems to be broken.

    What if the fullness, the speed, the noise, what if these are the problem?

    If speed reduces what any part of time can hold, the faster we try to get them to go, the more we pack into the child’s life, the more they themselves are reduced.

    Until finally they are nothing more than a cog in the industrial wheel.

    And what an entirely dull prospect that must be.

    And then we wonder at their self-medicating in the form of drugs, inappropriate and deviant behaviors, and entertainment.

    Why can’t they think? This is the question often asked in magazines and newspaper columns.

    The answer is very simple. Let’s use an illustration from my son’s earliest days. My son had handfuls of toys which were battery-powered. They did tricks, if you know what I mean. It didn’t take long for such toys to over-stimulate him. And then he would be fussy, irritable, whatever you call it. The solution offered in advice columns I’ve read for restless infants like this is to mix it up, give them more to do.

    For him, this was feeding the beast.

    If you want a restless child, overstimulate him.

    I learned that this child needed less. He needed one toy, maybe two. He needed one major activity in his week, not ten.

    He needed space, and we maybe are all just like him. Our space isn’t physical, it’s spiritual and mental.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to build a livable life. I keep circling around to the idea that a livable life is a full life that appears quite empty on the surface. I think Brende is on to something when he explains that having the life less full is giving it more space.

    The point of the livable life isn’t just the quietness. It’s to have room. I think of it like a seedling {not like my seedlings, which are dying daily of damping off…boo hoo} which will grow fine as long as the roots have enough room to expand. The same might be with a child’s crowded life…or our own. It is the space which promotes growth. Growth of the family bond. Growth of the intellect, of the soul, of the spirit. Growth of a hobby into a talent and a gift. Growth of a friendship over a cup of coffee.

    The space has less in it in order to have room to hold more of the intangible things which make life worth living.

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