I found this a beautiful example of how education can help crush prejudices.
Monthly Archives: November 2014
What I really miss of my husband’s (short) running career are those fantastic week-ends, when his races took us to visit many picturesque towns and villages. We used to choose the competition according to what the place had to offer for what concerns artistic beauties and, why not, food tradition. First you run and then you eat, it was a great combination after all, even for me that I didn’t run and the only task I had to accomplish was to welcome him at the finish line. So, as there are no races in sight, what did we have left? Well, the answer is simple: food.
Yes, food. After all, Italy is the land of food, and this is so true that we celebrate food every weekend, in every corner of the country. I’m talking about “sagre“, annual country festivals in honour of the typical products of the land: strawberries, cherries, chestnuts, pasta, mushrooms, bread, even flowers, only to mention the most famous ones just around Rome. These festivals are major attractions and a fantastic reason to quit the big city, take a breath of the fresh country air and taste juicy traditional food. Last week’s destination was Spello, an ancient town built of stone and enclosed in a circuit of medieval walls on Roman foundations in the province of Perugia (east central Umbria). Spello also boasts about two dozen small churches, most of them medieval, but the reason why we were there, was gold, Spello’s liquid gold: olive oil.
Certainly this hasn’t been the best year for olive oil. A combination of bad weather (very mild winter 2013/14 followed by a rainy summer) has led to Italy’s most disastrous olive harvest of the century. Furthermore an insect called tignola plus some fungi belonging to the Anthracnose family have plagued what had remained, completing the disaster. Despite the adverse fate, the annual festival hadn’t been cancelled and hundreds of local people put on their traditional costumes to welcome tourists and make the celebrations start.
Even the children were happy actors of the ceremonials.
Everywhere you could see people playing, dancing and having a good time. The city streets were filled with stalls offering “bruschetta” ( grilled bread rubbed with garlic and topped with tomatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper), and extra-virgin olive oil, skewers, sausages etc..
All of a sudden the most amazing pagan procession started. Rather than the usual religious statues of saints or the Virgin Mary, dancing and singing people started to follow their local gods: olive trees adorned with food carried by old tractors.
In this genuine, joyous atmosphere, made of the little, simple things typical of the past rural tradition, I couldn’t help but wonder: even if those people didn’t have all the comforts of modern, technological societies, weren’t they happier after all?
A Beast in Disguise
“What a piece of work is a man”: the noblest of all God’s creatures, the very essence of grace and beauty, “infinite in faculties”, “in action how like an angel“,” in apprehension how like a god” (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2) or…. is he only just an animal endowed with a little reason which he can’t even use properly? Swift wouldn’t have had the smallest doubt in choosing the second option.In the second book of Gulliver’s Travels, there is an episode that well explains his point of view.
Swift’s hero is in front of the King of Brobdingnad (the giants) with the design of acquainting him about all the wonders of English civilization. The king seems to pay great attention to Gulliver’s boast upon the political, cultural, scientifical achievements of his country, but in the end he comments his speech using the following mordant words:“I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth“. It’s clear that Jonathan Swift didn’t share the optimism of an age that believed that modern man could reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith and advance knowledge through scientific method. Quite the contrary. To that “greatness” of the Enlightenment creed, he opposed his idea of the moral “smallness” of man.
Throughout the novel Swift seems to be busy in analysing, dissecting, mortifying man with the only aim of demonstrating his viciousness, ineptitude and ignorance, making him thus meritorious of contempt rather than admiration. His characters are more body than mind and despite their use of reason, they cannot conceal their bestial traits. To convince us of that, he removes that veil of respectability and dignity that seems to characterize modern cultures and, without hiding a certain satisfaction, focuses his attention on those actions (defecating, urinating) or those parts of the body which, for good reasons of propriety, are usually considered taboo. Without that veil man is only a beast, a beast in disguise: a Yahoo.
In Gulliver’s last adventure on the land of the wise horses, he meets the Yahoos, but he stubbornly doesn’t seem to recognize any human traits in them (but we do), even if he meticulously analyzes every single part of their body with scientific zeal, anus included. Gulliver/ Swift shows all his revulsion, lingering on long descriptions which have the aim of exaggerating and distorting, thus making the reader feel the same repugnance. At first he feels “discomposed” at the sight of the Yahoos’ “singular” and “deformed” features, but detail after detail there is a crescendo of unrestrained aversion that makes them become “beast“, “ugly monsters“, “cursed brood“. The act of defecating on Gulliver’s head is the ultimate proof of the degradation of the Yahoos/men, who don’t seem to feel the shame of their actions. But when after a while Gulliver bumps into the wise horses, they see only a Yahoo with clothes on: a beast in disguise.
Was Robinson Crusoe…….ehm, gay????” “Eh?” was my astonished reply, as the question had been seriuosly posed by one of my brightest and most diligent, sensitive students; it didn’t actually look like a kind of joke. She was also so confident about her intuition that she wanted to know whether the Puritan reading public of the age had favourably accepted the character of Robinson Crusoe. This serious statement made me giggle a little, as I found unlikely and somewhat daring that Daniel Defoe, the Dissenter, the author who is commonly regarded as the father of the English novel , would have openly exposed his very first fictional hero to a discussion on his sexuality or sex in general without a moral implication. A certain prudery, in fact, pervades the novel. I remember an episode in particular that struck me. As soon as Robinson recovers from the shock of the shipwreck and understands to be all alone on the desert island, his very first concern, before thinking about food, water or even a safe shelter, is actually his own nakedness, as his clothes are ragged and has no change. He had not realized that there were no pleasures of society to be enjoyed on a desert island yet, and clothes were, actually, quite unnecessary.
However, there must have been something that had nourished the suspects of my student and the passage indicted was Robinson’s description of Friday. Friday is a twenty-six-year-old native Caribbean and cannibal, Crusoe had saved from the hands of other cannibals. Very likely Defoe wanted his readers to favourably accept him, therefore when it came the time to introduce him, he made a very accurate but implausible portrait of a native savage, who was not so like the other savages. Crusoe tells us that Friday was “comely” and “handsome“, words that, I am pretty sure, were the origin of my student’s confusion, and soon invites the reader not to listen to his prejudices, because the man is NOT what everybody would believe. He does NOT have ” a fierce and surly aspect” , but “a very good countenance” and when he smiles he has “all the sweetness and softness of a European“. His hair is NOT “curled like wool“, but long and black; his nose is NOT “flat like the negroes“, but small ; his lips are strangely thin and he can admire his beautiful set of teeth as white as ivory; his skin is NOT “quite black“, but “very tawny“, NOT “the ugly, nauseous tawny as the Brazilians the Virginians, and other native Americans are”, but something “very agreeable“. A very tanned Italian in short. Defoe crashes even the last prejudice, telling us that Friday must be also a clever, young man, because Robinson notices a certain sparkle in his black eyes and his forehead is very large and high, the distinctive trait of an intelligent man.
Robinson, is not attracted by Friday the man, but rather, Friday the potential slave. Robinson used to trade slaves and looks at him with the eyes of somebody who could have made a good profit from that young man standing in front of him, as he is “ perfectly well made, with straight long limbs, not too large, tall and well-shaped”, therefore strong and those beautiful set of white teeth are a sign of his good health. Therefore, the only relationship possible between Robinson and Friday, and that we are allowed to know, is that of master and slave. It is really interesting to remark that Robinson does nothing to subjugate Friday, but rather the latter instinctively understands that the white man is naturally superior. Robinson teaches him good manners and gives him the name of Friday, because that was the day he had saved his life and as soon as he can understand him, teaches him to call “Master”, rather than “Robinson”, just to underline that they will never be equal on that island.
Run, man! Run!
Berlin, Chicago, Venice and now even New York marathon is just gone, and no trace of Mr Run in any of these competitions. The sad truth is that despite the hard work, a meticulous training programme, a super balanced diet – all seasoned with the infinite patience Mrs Run is naturally endowed with -, Mr Run has unexpectedly turned into Mr Couch. As soon as the endorphins with their beneficial effects have one by one abandoned the body of my husband, a melancholic expression has appeared on his face and an iPad in his hands. When I look at him, he reminds me of that knight of Keat’s ” La Belle Dame sans Merci” so much, that I would like to ask him: “What hail at thee, knight at arm/ so haggard and woe-begone“, but I already know that his hopeless answer would be: a damned plantar fasciitis. After more than two months of therapies, the finish line of the complete recovery is still far, therefore, all I can do s trying to support him posting this video, hoping that as soon as he sees it, some endorphins will show up and make him smile again. Run, man! Run! I’m sure, you will very soon 🙂
The Sentimental Education
Simplicity is very often the best way to express the complexity of a state of the soul and William Blake, somehow, was a master of simplicity. Innocence and Experience are the two simple, effective words, that better portrayed for him the two opposite states of human soul. The age of Innocence is that phase when you are a child and you see the world that surrounds you with the curious eyes of wonder and imagination. In that stage the soul is highly receptive and absorbs every external input, hence life seems a joyous, frantic carousel of emotions. Unfortunately “Innocence” is a transient state and as time goes by, we drift towards Experience, that is, the age when our eyes, now opened wide, are no longer dimmed by the enchanting powers of Imagination. The more we become aware and overwhelmed by loads of responsibilities, the more we grow pessimistic and distrustful towards our future. We should try not to lose sight of that little child , that “fanciullino” , as the Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli called him, we used to be and retain a little room for him in our soul, but how? How can we fight the deteriorating effects of time over him?
Education was a possible answer or better a sentimental education. Many philosophers of the eighteenth century started to focus their attention on childhood, being that period of life when are we so responsive. John Locke warned that “the little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences “, therefore education should work on those impressions to “open and dispose their (children) minds as may best make them capable of any, when they shall apply themselves to it.” Furthermore, he maintained that the “associations of ideas” that one makes when young are more important than those made later, because they are the very foundation of the self.
Jean Jacque Rousseau wrote in his book Emile that all children are perfectly designed organisms, ready to learn from their surroundings so as to grow into virtuous adults. The instinctive goodness of a child is spoiled by society that for the French philosopher was malign and corrupted.That’s why he also advocated an educational method which consisted in removing the child from society, for example, to a country home, thus enabling him to live more in close contact with nature, which he regarded the only source of pure, uncontaminated values and emotions. He also maintained that child should grow up without any adult interference and that the child should be guided to suffer from the experience of the natural consequences of his own acts or behaviour. When he experiences the consequences of his own acts, he advises himself. A teacher, therefore, shouldn’t but encourage the natural curiosity of a child and guide him to experience the sensorial world, only once this world has been molded – at about the age of 12 – the tutor is allowed to work to develop his mind.The associationist philosopher David Hartley focused his attention on childhood as well and he assumed that also “our moral character develops in that phase as a result of the pleasure and pains caused by physical experiences“. Therefore if a child is well guided to experience the world and learn from the emotions he receives, he will be able to grow a more rounded mad with firmer ethics and more inclined to find joy and positivity in life.
That was almost three centuries ago and I have to say, all this interest in childhood was just philosophy, as the majority of children left school at six and were regularly exploited at work. Nowadays children live a more pampered life, at least in the western world, therefore there should be a more fertile ground to impart the lesson of those philosophers, but how do we educate our children? Are we really paying the due attention to make them develop their sensorial, emotional world, considering that all this should frame their moral character once they become adults?