The Barbarians

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It is undeniable that the new technological connected world has brought to the collapse the past idea of relation, politics, education, art and somehow given voice and shape to a very long gallery of people who would have barely seen the light before: scarcely educated, rude, arrogant, tasteless, they flood the world with their superficial, trivial, sometimes violent but incredibly effective messages. As barbarians they implacably destroy our certainties and nothing seems it can be done but walking hopelessly among those ruins of the past. The point is: are these barbarians ruthless destroyers or maybe is this only the way we perceive and fear change ? After all, whatever cannot be fully understood is often seen as a threat. Am I just growing old and losing touch with the new? Maybe, we should just modulate the way we look at things rather than feeling continuously under attack.

bar2This is what suggests Alessandro Baricco, Italian novelist and essayist, for whom the barbarians represent innovation rather than violence and destruction. In his ” The Barbarians: an essay on the mutation of culture“, Baricco remarks that the beginners of a new era have always been considered barbarians by their contemporaries, because they smashed past tradition. What they had in common was a good degree of that foolishness so dear to Steve Jobs: the clear perception of change. In the past Diderot and D’Alembert must have seemed barbarians at the eyes of the intellectual elite of the ancient regime, let alone the revolutionary music of Mozart and Romantic poetry, of course, which in fell swoop destroyed all the canons of classicism.The use of simple, unelaborated language, common themes, blank verse, for the purist of the age was a barbaric act on classic form. Actually, I myself have often  thought while reading Wordsworth‘s “Daffodils”, for example: “uhm , so puerile” and quite annoying all that flood of synonyms of the word “happy” (bliss, joy, jocund…)  as  if that were the only way to communicate the reader how happy he felt, but rather, resulting in my mind as a sort of Pharrell William walking in that wood singing and dancing wildly “because I’m happy“. And pray, don’t be offended by the word “puerile”, I borrowed it from Shelley‘s comment on the poem. All these people had to vandalize past canons to let their genius explode.

bar-3You wouldn’t believe it, but even Beethoven was considered a barbarian for his age. The critic of the Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review used the following words to review his most celebrated ninth symphony in 1825: Elegance, purity and measures, which were the principles of our art, have gradually surrendered to the new style, frivolous and affected, that these days of superficial talent  have adopted. Brains that, for education and habit, cannot think of anything else but clothes, fashion, gossip, reading novels and moral dissipation, are struggling to experience the more elaborate and less febrile pleasures of science and art. Beethoven writes for those brains, and in this he seems to have some success, if I have to believe the praise that, on all sides, I bloom for his latest work.” And even the American reviews did not spare negative comments:”…very much like Yankee Doodle,” sniffed a Providence, R.I. newspaper in 1868 and “Unspeakable cheapness,” declared Boston’s Musical Record in 1899. Hence; Beethoven was only endowed with a superficial talent for them and treated like a pop musician.

bar6Baricco says that nowadays modern Barbarians are people like Larry Page and Sergey Brin who were only twenty when they invented Google and had never read Flaubert,of course; Steve Jobs, creator of the Apple world and that touch technology which is so typically childlike;  or Jimmy Wales the founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that has formalized the primacy of speed over accuracy. These people sincerely did not reject all the past, yet, at the time of designing the future rather than using the tools of tradition, they employed new standards with the side effect of destroying to the root, entire estates of knowledge and sensitivity that lie in a shared heritage of civilization.

So far, then, I understand that this sense discomfort that pervades me depends only on my inability of accepting the mutation of this age, as, put it in this way, the barbarians seem to be absolutely necessary for the evolution of our civilization to the same degree they accomplish the precious function of fuelling with young blood  and energy the world of ideas. But then, Baricco introduces a new category and everything becomes more clear to me. The presence of the barbarians has a physiological consequence: the growth of the numbers of the barbarized. This phenomenon has always occurred, but in an age of mass communication where everything happens so rapidly, the barbarized may eventually prevail and change the course of events, before the revolutions of the barbarians might be effectively rooted in society. Furthemore, differently from other ages, the barbarized are no longer hidden and victim of the contempt of the refined, but they are fiercely visible on tv, social media etc., some of them has even pursued a career in politics. Hence, is this what the new world is going to be like? A world in the hand of the barbarized?

 

On Democracy, Demoguery and Foolocracy

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In Book Six of Plato‘s The Republic, there is a very illuminating passage about the nature of democracy. Socrates is discoursing with Plato’s brother Adeimantus trying to get him to see the flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship. “If you were heading out on a journey by sea“, asks Socrates “who would you ideally want to decide who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” The latter of course“, says Adeimantus, ” So why then“, responds Socrates,” “do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country?

soc1Such display of distrust in the democratic system from one of the foundling fathers of  philosophical thought and symbol of that idea of civilization which has Ancient Athens as universal icon, sounds quite striking. However, that means that since the very beginning the issue of representation was seen as the weakest aspect of democracy. Should electors require any skill to exercise their right to vote, census, education etc.? Or should we presume that democracy by birthright is the greatest modern achievement?

Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill rather than a random intuition. And like any other skill, it needs to be taught methodically to people. Letting citizens vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of that ship sailing to the frightening ocean. If they are not qualified, it might very likely crash against the rocks when the first storm comes. It sounds snobbish, I know,  but he was not. For Socrates only those who” had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote”.Giving the vote to all without connecting it to that of wisdom could lead a system the Greeks feared above all:( demagoguery: dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading) and only education could be the most effective antidote.

soc3Ancient Athens had indeed experienced  what being ruled by demagogues meant with Alcibiades. Rich, charismatic, smooth-talking,he had slowly eroded basic freedoms and helped to push Athens to its disastrous military adventures in Sicily. However, any era has seen the birth of one or more Alcibiades, because their real skill is exploiting our desire for easy answers, that is all. We want to believe to their alluring world made of slogans and promises without  taking the trouble of pondering on how all could be achieved or their consequences on people. We always enjoy a good story, don’t we?

As a demonstration of how our minds work, Socrates wanted us to imagine an election debate between two candidates: a doctor and a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner’ s speech would sound more or less like this:

“Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will”. Socrates asks us to consider what the reaction of the audience would be like: Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer – “I cause you trouble, and go against your desires in order to help you’” would cause an uproar among the voters, don’t you think? That’s why we prefer to give our vote to sweet shop owners rather than doctors.

But, if Socrates could be here among us and see that we are about to put in charge of the Italian vessel a comedian, a fool, I guess he would regret that sweet shop owner, wouldn’t he?

Mr Poe welcomes “the Betrothed Lovers” in the U.S.A.

bethrodedbethroted-5When Manzoni ‘s “The Betrothed Lovers” (I Promessi Sposi) landed in America in 1834, the book had already  become a hit in Europe. With more than 80 reprints in Italy and in Europe, “the Betrothed” had caught not only the attention of publishers and printers but also the praises of many illustrious writers of the time such as Mary Shelley, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, who had the fortune to know Italian and appreciate the book in the original language. The problem of the language employed by Manzoni  was no minor matter, as translators found it very difficult to interpret (as Italian students nowadays). That was one of the reasons why in England, for example, “The Betrothed” received bad reviews at first. For instance, on the «Foreign Quarterly Review» in November 1827  the reviewer smashed the novel with few words: «an indifferent novel written by a highly respectable dramatist» and  points out «the unnecessary and tedious minuteness of the historical notices with which it is interspersed». Certainly,  if “the genius of an author  is […] intimately associated with the genius and the very sounds of his language”, as Andrews Norton, another (bad) translator of “The Betrothed” remarked, it would be impossible to judge the necessary from the unnecessary and hence, the fortune of a book  would be entirely in the hands of translators.

bethroded4The Betrothed” was published in America on “The Metropolitan: a Miscellany of Literature and Science” in weekly installments in 1834 and translated by George William Featherstonhaugh (1780-1866), polygraph and English geologist who had emigrated to the United States. He also found the novel «exceedingly difficult to translate» and added that translating «such a work of pre-eminent merit […] is like attempting to paint the fragrance of violets and roses». However, Featherstonhaugh decided to handle the text in full, as he found impossible to clearly separate the dullest passages from “comic thoughts, and the finest touches of humor“. Even if there were no visible mistakes,  the style was too refined: vocabulary and syntax were actually Italian or Latin, therefore; far from current English. Such a choice would have been unpardonable for a fervent supporter of the “living and true language” as Manzoni was. In fact, Edgar Allan Poe , who had been commissioned the review of the novel, commented:

«We regret to say that the translation has many faults. We lament it the more, because they are obviously faults of haste. The translator, we fear, was hungry; a misfortune with which we know how to sympathize. The style is, for the most part, Italian, in English words, but Italian still. This is a great fault. In some instances it would be unpardonable. In this instance, perhaps, it is more than compensated by a kindred excellence. In a work like this, abounding in the untranslatable phrases of popular dialogue, it gives a quaint raciness which is not unacceptable.» 

Despite the many faults of Featherstonhaugh‘s translation, Poe was impressed by Manzoni ‘s masterpiece and his warm enthusiasm can be seen from the very beginning of his review:

«This work comes to us as the harbinger of glad tidings to the reading world. Here is a book, equal in matter to any two of Cooper’s novels, and executed at least as well, which we receive at the moderate price of forty-two cents!»

Even if he could not regard the novel “original” in the very sense of the word as ” the writer is obviously familiar with English literature, and seems to have taken at least one hint from Sir Walter Scott” Poe praises the perfection of the machinery of the story, which makes impossible and unworthy any attempt of summarizing it:

«Well! here is something that will stick by the ribs; a work of which we would try to give a sort of outline, but that it cannot be abridged. The machinery of the story is not intricate, but each part is necessary to the rest. To leave anything out is to tell nothing.»

bethroded2Unlike other critics of the time, Poe was not fooled by the writer’s Catholic attitude: “Manzoni was as much alive, as Luther himself, to the Church abuses of That.” But what particularly impressed Poe was  the author’s expressive power, which he wanted to give proof of, quoting entirely the episode of Cecilia’s mother and commenting: “There is a power in this to which we do not scruple to give great praise.” Of course, the description of the Plague in Milan in 1628, and the details of the “uncoffined bodies naked for the most part, some badly wrapped in dirty rags, heaped up and folded together like a knot of serpents,” and the “Monalti “  the men who,” having had the plague, were considered exempt from future danger, and were employed to bury the dead“, belonged much more to his taste and it seems to have strongly inspired his Mask of the Red Death and King Pest.

That was the beginning of Manzoni‘s fortune in America. The very same year another translation appeared in New York, but with a different title and more faulty than the previous one :” Lucia, the Betrothed” published by George Dearborn and translated by Andrews Norton. The blend of gloomy atmospheres and moral message succeed in touching many hearts. One of them, Charles Sumner, future American politician,was particularly struck by a scene where Fra Cristoforo asks the pardon of the brother of the man he had murdered and said: «The Pope should remit Manzoni ten thousands years trough purgatory in consideration of Fra Cristoforo and the Cardinal Borromeo. When I read the asking of pardon by Cristoforo, though I was in a public “vettura”, and albeit unused  to the melting mood, I yet found the spontaneous tear, the truest testimony to the power of the writer». Power which eventually managed to win over the ineptitude of his translators.

On School Books

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With this post, the trilogy about teachers’ frustration, or at least my frustration, for what concerns parents’ expectation from the school system comes to an end. Hence, having analyzed old and new attitudes towards the “pointless” habit of assigning homework, I would like to add few words on school books and how they have changed in time according to the new methodological requests.

As soon as you open a school book of your children, I guess you may promptly spot what’s new: pictures. Nowadays school books are mostly made of pictures rather than words. Even books of subjects which are less likely to require pictures, as for example, philosophy, are assembled with colorful paintings, drawings, fun activities and such. Books must be engaging and attractive, and to be attractive pictures work better than words, of course. I do understand this, because in my school days books were dull. When my philosophy teacher, for example, assigned us 12/15 pages to study, my first thought was: are there any pictures? We were really lucky if there was at least one, as once, books were made of words. If I had to study the Socratic method, for instance, I would have read pages and pages about the way Socrates succeeded in eliciting knowledge in the mind of a person by interrogation and insistence on close logical reasoning, plus extra essays on his famous disciples like Plato, plus notes at the bottom of every page without a trace of a picture. All grey.

Nowadays, it would impossible to propose such a book and I would not do it myself either. All these words would cause a shock to the Instagram , Facebook, “Why bothering about writing, there are emoticons” generation. The same topic, very likely , would be better and easily explained on modern books just using three drawings, yes, three would be enough. The first one would show Socrates while speaking to his disciples who look at him in silence😕, then in the second one he starts to asks questions and questions thus catching his disciples’ attention 😮and the final one the enlightened devotees eventually start to speak while Socrates displays his satisfaction 😄. His method had worked 👍.

Teaching has become mostly visual nowadays, which is fun for us teachers too. However, I have noticed that too often when our students are asked to read, because it happens sometimes, and analyze a text, they don’t understand the meaning of many words. For example, one day in a class with students of about 19 years old, we were talking about the “welfare state”. I gave for granted that they knew the meaning of the word, as even if we have borrowed it from the English language, it is commonly used on newspapers and political debates every day. However; nobody, and I say nobody, knew exactly the meaning of the word “welfare”and things did not improve significantly, when I translated it into the correspondent Italian “stato sociale”. A thick fog surrounded them. They were 19 and potential voters.We are so focused in transmitting knowledge with the help of images that we do not realize that words are starting to become meaningless for many of them and us too .

Hence, I cannot help but wonder, when every now and then we are asked to give our opinion on such “irrelevant” matters like Brexit in the U.K. or to vote the reform of the Italian Constitution, as it will happen here in Italy on the 4th of December, we should assume that all these people are informed as they can read and fully understand what they read, otherwise, upon what ground will they choose? I guess that the 40 something millions of citizens who are demanded to decide to vote YES or NO for the reform of the constitution, should, as prerequisite, at least be acquainted with the 139 articles which form the constitution plus the various sub-paragraphs and then analyze carefully the amendments to form an opinion. All this without the help of explanatory pictures? I have my doubts.

On the Necessity of Parents’ Doing their Children’s Homework.

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As I said in the previous post, rebellion is in the air. A rebellion against the oppression of homework and the tyrannous teachers who spoil the quality of students’ life assigning it. However, while analyzing these vigorous movements, I have realized that here in Italy, as usual, there is an anomaly. In fact, they do not seem to be grown out of the necessity of those “ill-treated” students, as it would be normal to assume, but rather, their parents’. It seems a kind of weird, I know, but it actually explains the nature of the phenomenon and why this generation of parents feels haunted and frustrated about homework habit: THEY do their children’s homework, that is all .

pin3Of course, I cannot but unconditionally sympathize with them, as that was the “duty comes before pleasure and leisure” generation, my generation. Our parents would  have never dreamed of questioning the necessity of homework or openly criticizing teachers and I would have never dreamed of complaining with them about the loads of work to do. Had I tried, their only solution would have taken the form of the reduction of my extra activities, which I didn’t want, of course, therefore ; I tried to organize myself the best I could and in a way or another, I managed to survive. Hence; not only these parents were regularly and unquestionably in the habit of doing their own homework, but  somehow, they feel compelled to do their children’s as well, sparing them the trouble of doing it, but why?

Of course, it cannot be pure masochism, as it would seem at first glance. Therefore; I can only guess that if, after a long, tiring day, those parents are still willing to take books, pens and paper to live their old homework doing nightmare again, their drives must be powerful indeed and from my experience I can single out two of them in particular: fear of failure and lack of time, better known as “let’s find a shortcut”.

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This happens, because  homework is generally considered only as the boring acquisition of notions, but it is not or at least it shouldn’t. Homework, actually, concerns the consolidation of what has been done in class and above all, work organization. Hence; those parents who constantly help their children do/organize their homework, actually, don’t trust them. They don’t let them grow and test their own learning method and besides they might undermine their self-esteem, as the subliminal message given is that without their help they would not be able to reach the goal otherwise. Believe me, this is how it works.

I have witnessed my sister-in-law for years, undergoing all this since first grade. Her constant presence had made the time dedicated to homework odious for my nephew and disappointing for her (and the entire family as well). Year after year, he had learnt to accomplish his duty only to avoid his mother’s pressures and shouts or to please her. Therefore;  homework was something pointless with a lot of drama added every day, which he did only for her mother and not for him. When she could not help him any longer, guess what? He failed, because in all those years he had not learnt how to manage his time, as her mother did it for him and worst af all, he had not developed any effective learning method. He had only learnt notions which were soon forgotten once the minimum goal was achieved.

For what concerns parents’ habit of doing homework as a sort shortcut to finish sooner, this point cannot be understood if we don’t comprehend how  adolescents have changed in time. The life of an average student nowadays is, let me say: busy. Teenagers practice at least one sport three or four times a week plus other extra activities of any kind, spend a lot of time facebooking, whatsapping, playing with video games, hanging out etc., hence; it seems difficult to find any extra, quality time for any additional effort. The point is that their parents are just fine about it, they are happy to see their children “have a life” (I’m employing the words they used in the many letters of complaint) and don’t want this routine to be spoilt,  that’s why they often replace their children in doing their homework.

My dear parents, you’ll be surprised, but I also think that your children need to have a life, all teachers work in order that they might have the best life possible, but we can’t do this without parents’ support. Let’s try to co-operate for once so that WE might have a life, as well. Therefore; stop doing their homework, and help them only if they ask you. Let them  “err“, “fall” and learn from their mistakes so that one day they might “find open before” them” the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!” (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

On the Necessity of Homework (again)

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Roaming here and there on the internet I have actually realized that the homework issue is not only Italian but it has become a trend topic all over the world.I had already dealt with this subject a couple of years ago, but having read such an enormous amount of “qualified” opinions lately and followed “high quality” debates on the matter, I cannot but update my point of view about it.
First of all, you have to know that last summer a serious rebellion took place in Italy against the annoying summer homework habit in particular and homework in general. This rebellion was led by many defiant parents armed of paper, cameras and Facebook . Yes Facebook, after all, any age has the kind of rebellion it deserves. However, these enlightened fathers and mothers decided to give evidence of their acts posting the letters they had sent to the teachers of their children, with which they informed them, that  they had gone on a sort of homework strike that summer, of course, giving adequate reasons. One them went viral and this is the glorious text:

Varese,  September 11th 2016,

Good morning, my name is Mario Peiretti and I am Mattia’s father. I would like to inform you that this year, like every year, my son has not done the summer homework. We have done many things over the summer, however: long cycling rides, camp life, managing the house and the kitchen. We built a new desk together and I helped him, listening and giving advice, in his primary interest: electronic programming. He has made considerable progress. I am increasingly convinced that summer homework is deleterious, in fact, I have never seen serious professionals taking  their work on holiday. You have about nine months to teach notions and culture, while I have three full months to teach him to live. I am convinced he will approach the new school year fresh and rested and therefore; more well-disposed. Several teachers, psychologists and lawyers share my thoughts. However, I am available for a meeting , if necessary. Marino Peiretti.

I am sure, those teachers were looking forward to talking to Mr Marino Peiretti. When we read such letters, we, teachers cannot but feel a little humiliated and frustrated as well. Of course, we understand that modern generations require different learning approaches, but homework cannot be considered a pointless deliberate moment of torture only. When we were students, we detested homework as well, but despite boredom, fatigue we understood that it was good for us after all.

But the point is, teachers of the world, do you want to keep on spending your time to try and convince rioting parents of the goodness of your intentions? Is this really our battle? Because, you know what? If they don’t want to do their homework, well, feel free, don’t do it ! Try to imagine, my friends, our life would improve a lot: no homework to plan or correct, no drama to face every time you find out someone who didn’t accomplish his duty, no more improbable excuses to hear ( modem implosion, permanent printer unavailability… new generation excuses, of course). Imagine, we would be loved and appreciated, we could live peacefully and maybe we could even receive thankful letters that could go viral on the internet too, with thousands and thousands of likes. Imagine. We will finally reach that state of bliss, we have always craved for, and then I’m sure, my friends, only then, “our” day will come. The day, when somebody like Matteo’s father will show up to ask your advice on how his child could improve his Maths grades, for example. That day, you will welcome him with a bright Buddha like smile and you will tell him these words: ” How strange?” ” Camping didn’t work, right?” “What about trying with fishing, this time!”

Should I stay or should I go

bre3There has been a lot of debating about the words Giorgio Napolitano; former Italian President, used to comment the so-called “Brexit” :I am among those who hoped to the end that  the desire to remain in Europe would prevail. The outcome of the referendum in Great Britain is a very heavy blow, a great element of economic, financial and political destabilization . We should reflect on how imprudent it was to propose this referendum on such extremely complex matters. ” “ Napolitano spit on democracy“, “the old communist has finally shed the mask“, were some of the angry reactions to his words, but even Mario Monti, former Italian PM and former European Commissioner reinforced Giorgio Napolitano’s concept.  During his speech at the Council for the United States and Italy relations meeting in Venice, in fact, he said:I disagree with those who think that EU referendum is good expression of democracy. Cameron abused of democratic power giving the referendum. Good that in Italy the Constitution prohibits the referendum on the EU’s treaties”. It seemed such a display of arrogance and distrust, of course. However, I cannot help but wonder: are we really submitted to the politicians’ will, who do not allow us to vote on such important matters? Is this a leak in our democratic system? Had I had to vote, upon what ground would I have made my choice? Do I possess the required know-how to vote in a responsible way?

bre4At this point I have to mention a survey which dates back to 2015; however, I don’t think those figures  have changed significantly this last year. The survey states that 80 % of our population are “analfabeti di ritorno” that in English could be more or less: those who have” relapsed into illiteracy”. 80 people out of 100 may be able to write and read, but they don’t fully understand given messages on various matters, graduated included. I don’t want to discuss the causes of this glorious outcome here, but this is a fact, and I am sure that even in those countries which may exhibit better figures, the percentage of those “analfabeti di ritorno” would still represent a majority. Politicians know these surveys well, that’s why their speeches have become a sequence of catch-phrases in time: they talk to that 80% of people, to their hopes, dreams and above all fears.

bre1Yes, fears. The Brexit campaign, whether you were for the “remain” or “leave” side,  was all about fears. For those who voted for” leave” there was the fear of immigration and  that being part of the EU meant accepting the free movement of people without being able to limit or control them ; fear of losing national sovereignty, as half of the laws in force in the United Kingdom are approved by EU bureaucrats who nobody elected; fears of the restrictions of European burocracy, hence Britain would boost the economy freeing itself from the bonds imposed from Brussels and be free to negotiate bilateral trade agreements with developing countries like India and China. For those who supported the “remain” side was pretty much the same: fear of isolation; fear of giving impulse to nationalistic and populist movements around Europe; fear of losing the advantages of the common market; fear of being economically more vulnerable in the age of globalization; fear of the risk of separatism. Whatever you wanted to vote, there was something you had to be afraid of. Hence, the most deep-rooted fears won.

bre2The European Union we live in today is not the result of fears but of a dream of some visionary leaders, who possessed that degree of foolishness Steve Jobs talked about at Stanford University. That meant going beyond the troubles of a disastrous present with its post war political, economical and social instabilities, to imagine and work for a peaceful, prosperous Europe and above all united, as that could and will be guarantee of peace and stability. But this is forgotten and we give for granted the hard reached stability to welcome populisms and nationalisms of any kind with all that means. I don’t mind if a democratically elected politician acts as guide of a country rather than giving voice to its basest fears. Very likely, modern politicians don’t possess that kind of foolishness, that’s why they seek the comfort of democratic exercise, causing ….who knows?