The dictatorship of ignorance

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Few days ago as we were discussing about the nature of the three Bill of Rights, I took this chance to analyse the concept of universal suffrage and provocatively asked them whether it was actually right that everybody could vote or if they saw some faults in the system. Stupor and amazement was their first reaction, how can it be possible to discuss such a great achievement of modern history? Therefore, I decided to refresh what democracy means to add other elements to the discussion: Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally—either directly or indirectly through elected representatives—in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. It encompasses social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination.”

What makes a citizen eligible? Age? Profession? In my opinion education makes citizens eligible. I want to make myself clear. Few weeks ago I read on a newspaper the result of a survey about the quality of education here in Italy and the outcome was really disastrous. 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 what they read, graduated included. This happens because we don’t read much in this country, in fact in the many years I spent in England, if there is one thing that really surprised me at first glance, apart from the habit of queuing, was the great number of people I saw reading everywhere.

Certainly my students, who are 18/19 and are going to vote soon, placed themselves in the 20% of the cultivated, therefore I asked them to explain the meaning of the expression  “welfare state“. No-one was able to produce a decent answer. The question is, if you don’t know the meaning of a common topic such “welfare stare“, upon what ground are you going to give your vote? Politicians know that survey well, that’s why their speeches have become a sequence of catch-phrases in time, they talk to that 80% of people who don’t take the trouble to inform themselves and believe any given promise . 80 is more than 20 after all.

Has modern democracy become the dictatorship of ignorance?

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The Price of being Jane Eyre

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There is a passage in Pride and Prejudice that always makes me ponder on how women have changed in time. If they have changed. It’s when Caroline Bingley explains what a woman should do or should be to get the trophy of the “true accomplished woman”, therefore worthy of a great matrimony:

A(n accomplished) woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved “.
images889YC3WA The reaction of the public she is lecturing to is quite interesting: for Mr Darcy this definition is not enough to match his high standards and adds that such a woman should work on the  “improvement of her mind by extensive reading“, Elizabeth asserts that there are just a few women who possess such talents and she doesn’t know any and Mr Bingley……well, he doesn’t really care much. However, if these were the “qualities” required, the draft of the nineteenth century upper class woman is that of a “look at me” kind , whose main concern is the exhibition of her self in order to be admired and hopefully marry the man she thinks to deserve.

Jane Eyre is the first heroine that defies those cultural standards of the nineteenth century, that’s why she bears the stamp of the proto-feminist. She has been brought up to rely on herself only and not on a male figure. Her job as governess makes her independent and she doesn’t seem to be intimidated at all by her master Mr Rochester:

I do not think, sir, you have any right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use   you have made of your time and experience.”

Jane-Eyre-2011-71-460x250She feels mortified when Mr Rochester wants to lavish her with expensive gifts in occasion of their imminent wedding:” the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation.” and she has the courage to refuse matrimony not once but twice. Therefore Jane represents woman’s awareness of being able to do well in the world thanks to her effort, power, self respect, dignity without all that exhibition of accomplishments required to find the support of a man. The only thing is that I am not totally convinced we have really left behind Caroline Bingley’s phase, but rather Jane’s and Caroline’s phases, co-exist in a modern woman.

Nowadays, in fact,  all these “accomplishments” would be mostly defined as hobbies. I myself used to play the guitar,  I did some karaoke, I love dancing, I speak many languages and I also try to improve my mind ” by extensive reading” , but in addition to this, just like any other woman in the world, I have to work, look after the house and family, take care of old parents, without ignoring the importance of that ” certain something in her air and manner of walking“, hence I try to keep fit and do whatever is possible to be attractive, and for what concerns “ the tone of the voice”, well, it depends on how I feel, when I come back home after a day like this. Don’t know, haven’t you ever been under the impression of being born in the wrong century?

P.S. Mr Run wants everybody to know that he wakes up six o’clock in the morning to go to work and when he comes back home, he goes running, of course, but once back he diligently prepares dinner. He is in charge with the cooking, the ironing and washing as Mrs Run doesn’t seem to possess such “accomplishments” 🙂

The Quest for Nirvana

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There is one aspect I really loved about the Romantics of the first generation. They had a vision. They soon understood that the world was undergoing such a change due to the industrial revolution, whose consequences wouldn’t have been only of a social, economical nature, but emotional. Modern world would have moved faster, but speed would have made man inevitably more shallow if not blind. You cannot grasp the essence and the beauty of live if you must move at high-speed. For example, If I live in Rome and I want to go to Milan by airplane I will see just the destination, if I get the train I will be able to see the beautiful landscapes, mountains, rivers ; but if I could do it riding a bike I could smell the air, meet the people, taste their food, interact, live, I could really see, learn, grow – I am sure two fellow bloggers from Canada cannot but agree with me upon this point  😉  – . If you don’t want modernity to devour your uniqueness and sensibility, you need time and maybe a bike.

imagesW2YGFEXYTherefore you have to STOP. This is what Wordsworth said. Stop and breathe, stop and enjoy the wonders of nature, stop and make your “inner eye” live and vibrate with the spiritual forces of the world. If you just stop for a while, you will find  happiness. This is the inner message of one or Wordsworth’s most famous poems: “Daffodils“. He also adds, that this or any other experience of this kind, will be always part of man and helps him in times of trouble. But if a man is insensitive, where can he find his comfort?

images7YML3HLBEven the Ancient Mariner of Coleridge‘s “Rime”  stops with a spell the young, reluctant, Wedding Guest in order to communicate with him. He wants the boy to listen to his tale in order to meditate upon its meaning. Think before acting or you will inevitably pay its consequences, he seems to say, take your time to do the right thing. In the end the Wedding Guest will be transformed into ” A wiser and sadder man”.

nirvanaAt this point a question takes shape in my mind : “couldn’t  Coleridge and Wordsworth be a kind of unaware Buddhists”?  After all, the ancient mariner seems a sort of Buddha to me, that is, the enlightened teacher who shares his insights to help man (the Wedding Guest), end sufferings through the elimination of ignorance by way of understanding and the elimination of craving.  Even the poem Daffodils, cannot be a great example of Buddhist meditation? Your mind focuses on an object (daffodils), this image expands to your mind, body and entire surroundings, till your mind is able to gain insight (inward eye) into the ultimate nature of reality and reach a sense of beatitude (“My heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils“). In that state, time does not exist and we are in harmony with ourselves reaching our Nirvana.

However, Buddhism was well-known at those times. images1GO9TIX4Arthur Schopenhauer, for instance, was deeply influenced by Eastern philosophy and religion and was convinced that suffering was caused by desire and only the extinction of desire led to liberation. In The World as Will and Representation he finds in aesthetic contemplation a temporary way to escape this pain, because through aesthetic contemplation the world is no longer seen as an object of perception but rather as that place where one merges with that perception. In that timeless moment the individual loses his identity/will and his sorrows as well, thus being able to enjoy the true essence of the world.

Ahhhh, that would be really great, but, excuse me…………….what time is it?

Chomsky or chocolate

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Every time I give a look at the many piles of books I’ve read in my life and think at the many subjects I’ve had to study to become an English teacher: linguistics, psycholinguistics, literature, metalinguistics, glottology, philology…I can’t help but wonder: once I found myself behind the teacher desk, chomskyhow much of what I have learnt has been really helpful to me? For example when it happens to teach in a school considered “border” with many cases of social distress among students – and a lot of stress among teachers – what or who has really helped me find the right educational intervention? Who could give the right inspiration in times of trouble? Don’t know, maybe Noam Chomsky? In my case, it was Michelle Pfeiffer.

It is more that ten years ago now, when I made the experience of teaching in one of these schools as I had no better alternatives; it happens when you are at the beginning of your teaching career.  Actually, teaching English in such schools does not require great linguistic expertise, if fact in the five-year course all the shades of the Present Simple are usually explored, sometimes even the Present Continuous can be introduced in more advanced classes. However, what you really have to master is the relationship with the class, which is of a tamer vs tigers kind, hence you have to be strong, firm and let me say, healthy if you don’t want to end up devoured.

I remember one class in particular, it was a second year of high school. They were supposed to be 15/16 years old, but the average age was 19 and I can tell you that the rare days they were all in, that is 12 in dangerousall, they seemed a crowd to me. As it was a second year, I thought they would have been more involved if I had introduced something new, rather than keeping on musing on the tedious Present Simple, I wanted to make a step forward and that step was the Past Simple. I don’t think they actually listened to a single word I said. I remember their yawns, and these were the most brilliant, while the others were totally engaged in something else. At the end of the lesson I assigned them to learn some paradigms, not many: 10. They following day none of them had studied a single paradigm.

What did I have to do ? Threat them ? Call the principal? They would have sneered at me and marked with the infamous stamp of cowardice. I had to find a solution. My extensive readings of Chomsky’s works couldn’t be of any help, but the solution was not on books, it was on tv.  Right those days I had watched a movie: Dangerous Minds, SCHOOLED-DANGEROUS-MINDSwhere Michelle Pfeiffer was a novice teacher who had to deal with problematic students some of them even with a borderline personality. I couldn’t certainly pretend I had been a marine, just like she had said to catch their attention, and you know, I do not exactly look like Michelle Pfeiffer, but one thing I had understood clearly: I had to find the way to involve them, if I wanted to reach my goals.

imagesI decided to make an investment: I bought 20 euros of chocolates and sweets of any kind and the next day I was ready to put into practice my brilliant idea. I sat at my desk and I calmly placed right in front of them all that glucose. They looked inquisitive. Then I divided the sweets and chocolates in five piles, which represented five prizes, and told them that if they wanted them, they could win them. How? I would produce a list of 30 paradigms and give 15 minutes to learn them all. The first five who could write on the blackboard 10 paradigms without making any mistake, would have their reward. I can only tell you hat at the and of the hour there was still one pile left, but they didn’t let me go, till it was conquered.

That was the beginning of a great year. Grades naturally replaced chocolate, my students started to improve their skills and as it usually happens, when they saw their improvements they kept on studying, because success made their self-esteem grow. As for myself I learnt that the most essential part of teaching is helping students see and reach their goals, no matter what means I have to use, even chocolate, if necessary.

That’s why I don’t want to be Jane Eyre

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A couple of days ago I saw a headline on Il Corriere della Sera , which caught my attention: Perchètutte (o quasi) vorremmo essere Jane Eyre di Charlotte Bronte” ( That’s why all of us (or almost all) would like to be Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte).It was a kind of  interesting, because, actually Jane Eyre has never been one of my favourite heroines, and certainly not one I naturally identify with,  maybe Angela Frenda, the journalist who wrote the article, had new fresh hints to offer.
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Jane Eyre belongs to category of the Bildungsroman, if fact we see her moral, psychological, and intellectual development from her early youth to a more mature age. Jane is an orphan left in the care of a cruel aunt, who gets rid of her very soon and sends her to a horrible school for girls, Lowood, to become a governess. After many years of troubles and hard work, she…

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Confusion

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Oh, I think it’s high time to write a post about education, let’s call it  pseudo-educational post as it is not meant to be serious. This came to my mind reading the blogs of other teachers from many parts of the world, who seemed to display the same levels of frustration that many Italian teachers share. The question is: what is the role of a teacher in the twenty-first century? You may say: “a teacher teaches”, wrong, modern teachers are psychologists, pedagogues, advisers, trainers, confessors and a lot of other things and yes, of course educators, but the latter does not come at the top of the list . Few decades ago it was a much simpler job, a teacher was a person with a higher degree of education who transmitted his knowledge to the generations of children he worked with and helped them grow, and for this he was respected.

teacherNowadays it is not the same. The spreading of  education and the quick access to information thanks to technology, has narrowed the cultural gap between parents and teachers, making necessary a reassessment of the role of teachers and let me say, education in modern societies. The respect of  students and parents has to be conquered day by day, which is not bad at all, but often it is not based on your educational effort and skills. However, even if sometimes you feel like having reached your goal there could be still  a few surprises waiting for you just around the corner, not necessarily pleasant.

imagesU65Q54N7Do you remember the movie “Dead Poet’s Society?” Well, each teacher has experienced that inebriating state of mind at least once in his career: the illusion of being as charismatic, motivating, admired, fundamental as Robbie Williams in the movie. It’s a fabulous emotion. So, one day, soon  after a very much appreciated lesson,  a girl came to my desk me to tell me something that in her mind should sound as a compliment:
Well, Teach, this lesson was really amazing” (great satisfaction)
You are so good, have you ever taken into consideration to do something else, something better?” (major satisfaction)
Don’t know, a stewardess?”
Ah“.

stewardessI’ve got nothing against being a stewardess, it’s a great job, better wage, trips, Club Tropicana, Wham, fab. However, it is not exactly the same field, apart from speaking more than one language, I can’t see no other points in common. Nevertheless, the girl saw it as an advancement in my career. Hence, if this is how we are perceived, if culture does not matter, when it comes the time to discuss the results of a student, how do parents accept the evaluation of somebody who is technically below a stewardess?

Typical conversation parent-English teacher on parents’ day:
I don’t understand why my boy’s grades are so low. He can speak English well, I saw him myself at work. You know, last summer we were in London, we went to a McDonald, well, he ordered cheeseburgers and fries for all of us and they actually gave him cheeseburgers and fries!
Great, but what has it to do with Shakespeare, we are studying the Elizabethan period”!
“Ah“.
I have to ask my Italian Literature colleagues, if they are satisfied to know that one of their student has ordered a portion of cannelloni at a restaurant and he was actually given cannelloni rather than testing him on Dante. I might be wrong, you’ll never know.

Make the right wish

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Wish_List_(Magic_Lamp)If you could rub the Lamp of Aladdin and ask the genius to make one wish to come true, but only one, what would you choose? Love, success, fortune, health or what else? Are you sure you will be able to take the right decision with no regrets afterwards? I actually wouldn’t know what to pick, maybe health, however, I’m going to give you a couple of examples in literature to demonstrate that this is a question that has to be pondered carefully, before giving an answer, otherwise the consequences could be devastating.

cumaeSibyl of Cumae was a prophetess in service to Apollo and a renowned beauty. Apollo wished to take her as his lover and was ready to offer her anything she desired. Unfortunately she didn’t ponder on her answer and instinctively asked to defy death: she wanted to live forever. It was easy for Apollo to grant her wish, he was a powerful god after all, but still she refused to become his lover. Greek gods were usually of a revengeful kind, and Apollo’s revenge consisted in granting Sibyl’s wish anyway, as he knew that giving that answer she had doomed herself to misery. In fact the boon Sybil had chosen was one of a cruellest kind. She wouldn’t have died just like anybody else but she would have kept growing older and older and older.

imagesVC9Q2RUJShe lived for hundreds of years, each year becoming smaller and frailer. When Trimalchio speaks of her in the Satyricon, she is little more than a tourist attraction, tiny, ancient, confined:I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered: “I want to die.” This is the scene Eliot quotes at the beginning of the Waste Land. The Sybil had given the wrong answer. Immortality doesn’t actually mean eternal happiness because time keeps on reminding its presence painfully “wasting” our bodies. But, had she asked for eternal beauty?

imagesUR2ZX0G4The moment  Dorian Gray may see the picture that celebrates his remarkable beauty, suddenly realizes that his charm very soon will slip away. He will never be as attractive as the portrait which stands in front of him. That picture will keep on reminding his inevitable decay. There are no gods or devils here, but his intense wish of eternal beauty is granted, therefore magically Dorian will remain young while the portrait grows old and ugly in his place. Time won’t touch his features but it will still be able to “waste”  his soul. In fact the portrait, which stands for Dorian’s conscience, will record the consequences of a life of debauchery, and every sin or crime committed will result in the disfigurement of its form. Dorian won’t bear to look at the picture any longer and he will destroy it, thus killing his true self. Therefore neither eternal youth nor immortality are the key to happiness. Ergo, what could the right answer be?