Supposedly our society is speeding up. “Is the pace of life accelerating? If so, what are the cultural, social, personal and economic consequences?” asks the blurb to a book by John Tomlinson, The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy (Theory, Culture & Society), Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2007. A very important question, actually, and one which impacts on my current topic of research, on intellectual disability (or cognitive disability, or learning disability) in the Middle Ages. Speed emerged as a cultural issue during industrial modernity, through the rise of capitalist society and the shift to urban settings, defined by the belief in ‘progress’, argues Tomlinson, so the medieval world will have been one of bucolic calm, according to this theory. What, one may wonder, has this got to do with cognitive disability? Well, cultural acceleration has effects not just on the ‘immediacy’ of the twenty-first century, the “combination of fast capitalism and the saturation of the everyday by media technologies” [Tomlinson], but on our cultural and moral values. Now, confronted with the phenomenon of social acceleration, “we talk of ‘fast food’ and ‘speed dating’ ” (Hartmut Rosa and William E. Scheuerman (eds), High-Speed Society: Social Acceleration, Power, and Modernity, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2008), and tend to believe that faster is better, although one of the questions asked in this book is how much speed we can tolerate. Paul Virilio, who coined the term ‘dromology’ (the study of speed) in Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology, New York: Semiotext(e), 1977, started the intellectualisation of speed. Searching for the meaning of ever speedier change has become a progressively more respectable path of scholarship in cultural or media studies.

For all the pages of cultural theory, as far as I know none of these learned tomes, the cultural critics or the philosophes of (post)modernity consider the effects of societal celerity on cognition, on thinking, and on definitions of intelligence. At least Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) mentions autism spectrum disorder, but only as the antithetical example to ‘normal’ thought processing. The stereotype of intellectual disability, and its sub-group, learning disability (or learning difficulty, depending on regional preference) dictates a picture of slow, ponderous unintelligence, and in contrast to the dull minds of the learning disabled, those quick on the uptake are bright, fast learners. Speed, sharpness and light are culturally contrasted with being slow, blunt and dull. What about the disparity between the accelerators and those who cannot keep up the speed? Virilio “notes that the speed at which something happens may change its essential nature, and that which moves with speed quickly comes to dominate that which is slower.” (Wikipedia article on Paul Virilio) Accordingly, by analogy those who think faster or have quicker wits are deemed more ‘intelligent’ than those who think slower and take longer to express their thoughts. Society, and with it the expectation of cognitive ability, has accelerated to the detriment of those perceived to be slower. We’re all Vorticists* now.

[*’Vorticists’ is perhaps a bit of a misnomer, since the Vorticists regarded themselves as the calm in the eye of the cultural storm; the vortex is after all a whirling motion with a still centre. But it had too nice a ring not to use as a phrase here.]

It was not always so, however. Quick witted ripostes were not always valued above slow, cautious or considered thought. Here it is worth citing a few excerpts from the Didascalion of Hugh of St Victor, who in the twelfth century already drew attention to the different abilities of learners, and also pointed out that these are not totally fixed, but malleable by the educator. Aptitude maybe “arises from nature”, but it “is improved by use, is blunted by excessive work, and is sharpened by temperate practice” (The Didascalion of Hugh of St. Victor III.vii, trans. and intro. Jerome Taylor, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, p. 91). Hugh was also one of the first people to make the distinction, so popular with later educational theorists, between what came to be called the will-nots and the can-nots, that is those who are able but reluctant to learn and those, such as those nowadays categorised as learning disabled, who are deemed unable and therefore blameless for their underachievement. “And still it is one thing when one is not able, or to speak more truly, when one is not easily able to learn, and another when one is able but unwilling to learn” (Didascalion, Preface, p. 44). One may note that Hugh did not dismiss those with perceived learning difficulties out of hand, since he qualified his own statement, that those presumed unable are in fact only “not easily able”, in other words, given the right support, in modern terms, they maybe slower but still able to learn.

According to Hugh, a slower learning pace may even be better: “Consider, rather, what your powers will at present permit: the man who proceeds stage by stage moves along best.” (Didascalion, III.xiii, p. 95). Hugh repeats this advice in Book VI.iii: “the man who moves along step by step is the one who moves along best, not like some who fall head over heels when they wish to make a great leap ahead” (p. 137). In the Didascalion, there are different types of students, or in modern parlance different types of learner. There are some “who are naturally dull and slow in understanding things” (V.v, p. 126) but there are also extraneous forces which impede learning, among them what Hugh calls bad luck (fortuna). “Bad luck shows up in a development, a chance happening, or a natural occurrence, when we are kept back from our objective either by poverty, or by illness, or by some non-natural slowness, or even by a scarcity of professors, because either none can be found to teach us, or none can be found to teach us well” (V.v, p. 127). Prefiguring modern educationalists’ theories, Hugh suggested that in such cases the student needs to be assisted (adiuvandus). Extrapolating from what Hugh wrote nearly nine centuries ago, there may be slow learners but there’s no such thing as non-learners.