Is There a Future for Teaching?

April September is the cruellest month. It smells of sirocco, which with its warm breath and threatening clouds confounds the bright serenity of summer days thus foreshadowing the coming of autumn. There are still a few good days to be enjoyed of course, few, but they have the bitter taste of the awareness that something is just about to end. I guess this is the sort of melancholy which affects those who, like me, live by the sea, love the sound of the waves and looking out at the horizon. We are accustomed to live outdoor so many months of the years that home seems like a prison when September comes.

April Sempember is the cruellest month. In such a miserable state of mind the month begins with its most terrible mortal blow: teaching staff meetings. I believe that any teacher in any part of the world would agree with me if I say that the most salutary effect of summer vacations is: forgetfulness. Only few weeks and you realize that you have almost forgotten everything: papers, passwords, the inevitable conflicts you had in the past.  I am sure that two or three colleagues of mine must have given me reasons to get on my nerves last year, but actually, I can’t remember why at the moment and so I just say hello to them with a smile. That’s why before the first teaching staff meeting there is always a certain cheerfulness and excitement in the air, we are all tanned, friendly, light-hearted. Before.

April September is the cruellest month.The reading of the agenda of the meeting has the immediate effect of quickly awakening minds from the summer slumber and in that very moment illusory forgetfulness gives its way to memory and harsh reality. From the list of the issues to be discussed, school appeared to be a cautious bureaucratic system with no real identity or goal different from satisfying the wishes of families, who have actually become our customers and we know that customers must always be satisfied. So, if we don’t want to lose ground in the competition with other schools, we have learnt in time to dedicate a lot of our efforts in creating and customizing learning products, with the hope our customers might find them appealing, we have become travel agents, project makers, data analysts, advisors and what more! Is this what we wanted to be when we started?

April September is the cruellest month. After at least two hours of an endless discussion on school trips, on which destinations even the closest stations to go, hadn’t been all of us fully in such process of metamorphosis into somebody/thing we don’t know yet, had we had a shred of dignity left, we should have stood up and say, what has it all to do with me? And quit the assembly then. My friends, teaching once was a sort of romantic, generous job. Teachers were those who had the task of transmitting knowledge or better the curiosity of knowledge to generations. They made the difference, but now, if the nature of the activities we are involved into are often so very far from teaching, is it still so? In a time when information can be easily got on the web, if teachers no longer make the difference, why should society need them?

There are already apps with avatar trainers who teach how to work your glutes, abs, Pilates, Yoga, cooking etc. , I’m sure very soon they will be programmed to teach Latin, Math, History with customized lessons and looks as well. It seems that one of them has already been tested. His name is Will. So, my dear friends, if we accept to give up making the difference not only September will be the cruellest month, but also October and November and all the months of the years as the teaching system, as it is now, will have no reason to exist.

 

 

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All Sentiment and Tender Heart

I’m often told I’m not dog friendly or pet friendly in general. Well, on this occasion I would like to say publicly that it is true, I am not, only, I would like to point out that I don’t actually feel this sense of aversion towards animals in particular, but rather towards their owners. I know that for many of them a dog, for example, may represent the company, the friend they need or for somebody even a child. It is family, I understand, but what you have to understand as well that for me it is only a dog: an animal. Therefore, I am annoyed when they are without a leash and run freely in the street: “Don’t you worry, it is harmless” said to me smiling a pit bull owner once, while that delicate beast was on the point of attacking a paralyzed me. Harmless? How should I know it? Furthemore, I don’t like to see dogs in places where food is sold or served like bars, markets or restaurants.

I remember one day Mr Run and I were in a restaurant, when a couple with a beautiful, big, majestic dog arrived. Everybody welcomed it with common deserved admiration and it did receive our praise too, till we saw that the couple and their dog approach the table near ours and sat there. We couldn’t say anything as that restaurant allowed dogs in. By the way, I couldn’t but laugh, when I was saw the hairy tail of the dog at least half a meter long wagging and tickling the head of my husband while he was about to eat. On one side it was hilarious but on the other it was irritating as for the couple that was a normal behaviour. We had been totally ignored. Of course, we had to say to them to place their lovely beast somewhere else far from our heads at least.

Animal lovers are used to flooding their Facebook walls with lovely pictures of their pets which usually receive hundreds of likes and sweet, heartwarming comments. These people are loving and caring indeed, in fact, every time they come across some little foundlings they are organised in a way to find the little creatures nurturing and a house as soon as possible. That is why I felt enraged when on one of these walls I read this post :

“If I land in any foreign airport and I do not have the documents in order I cannot put my feet out of the airport. Nobody tells me that I am held prisoner. You cannot enter any foreign country ignoring the rules. This must also be applied to the illegal migrants of the ship”Diciotti”.

Wow, so the fact that nearly 200 people, who had been rescued from the Mediterranean on 15 August and trapped on the Italian ship Diciotti in Catania in terrible unhealthy conditions, as Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had denied the coastguard vessel permission to disembark the majority of them until the EU would agree to distribute the migrants across other countries, could not arouse any feeling of compassion in them or shame, because as Italian I feel deeply ashamed .

This reminded me or some lines from the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales when Chaucer describes the moves and the attitude of the Prioress:

“As for her sympathies and tender feelings,
She was so charitably solicitous
She used to weep if she but saw a mouse
Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding.
And she had little dogs she would be feeding
With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread.
And bitterly she wept if one were dead
Or someone took a stick and made it smart,
She -was all sentiment and tender heart”

Of course “She -was all sentiment and tender heart” with her animals, but Chaucer doesn’t say anything about human beings. Maybe he forgot about it.

The Importance of a Good Mattress

This morning was scrolling down my reader, when my attention was caught by an article of a blog “romandispatches” (whoever would like to venture to Rome even in such “desperate” times I heartily recommend it). The blogger, I guess his name is Peter, had exhumed a post about recycling that dated back to five years ago to strike the actual situation in Rome for what concerns garbage collection. To his eyes, at that time we Romans looked very attentive to recycling, he had actually used the word: “obsessed“. “Obsessed?” Had we been truly obsessed with recycling there would have never been such environmental degradation in spite of the manifested incompetence the administrators who have been sitting in Campidoglio in recent years.

The truth is that about six, seven years ago each Roman family received a recycling kit made of a pretty bin for wet waste and four of five bags, I can’t remember now, where  paper, glass, plastic had to be properly sorted. The bags were so popular, actually, that one of my colleagues, who clearly doesn’t suffer from shopping addiction like myself, loved them so much that decided to use the entire set even to go to work…… to school😳. One day she came with the bag for glass and the next with the bag for paper. I am sure she had never experienced such extravagance of habit in her entire life.

There was also a booklet included in the kit with all the instructions so that everybody could have his chance to become a good, caring citizen. I may say that it worked at the beginning. Even those who lived in small flats like myself of about 60 square meters were proud to sacrifice almost five of them to the 5 big bags destined to garbage. So all the Romans started the recycling adventure. Everybody went to the dumpsters and diligently emptied those bags in the way they had learnt from the booklet, it was good after all to have 60 square meters back for a while.

Problems turned up when we, diligent citizens, started to find the dumpsters full as they had not been emptied. At first we didn’t mean to give in and walked till we came upon one empty and this soon became part of a fitness routine for many of us I dare say, but if it rained or you were just too fatigued, you couldn’t but carry your full bags back home. Till one day, since the dumpsters were constantly full, I guess somebody, fed up with sorting uselessly garbage every day, must have chosen to follow a shortcut, that is, putting the paper, for example, in the first empty dumpster he found, while somebody else started to think that it was high time to exhume the old polluting plastic bags, so that, if necessary, they could be placed next the dumpster and the redirect the usage of the other bags to other purposes. I guess my colleague was one of them.

Sooner or later all of us have fully or partially followed these shortcuts.So this is how everything started and it cannot but getting worse as there is not a plan, any realistic plan for what concerns separating collection of waste. Administrators cannot be of any help and this can be easily understood  just reading this tweet of Virginia Raggi, who has been Mayor of Rome, the capital I would like her to remember, for more than two years now:

This morning the mattress, which had been abandoned in Viale Filarete in Tor Pignattara  by a couple caught red-handed thanks to a videotape made  by a citizen who, like most Romans, cares about the city’s decorum, has been removed.

 

Wow, I feel much better now and more hopeful for the future. The wind is changing.

Wilfrido or On the Necessity of Education

Some years ago, my husband and I had the great opportunity of joining a program of long distance adoptions in Paraguay. The idea of helping the minors of the poor countries and  their families providing them with an economical help so that they might receive the primary goods, education and the medical care they need, made us feel, I don’t know, better people, if this makes sense. Once subscribed, after few weeks, we received a letter with all the personal data of the adopted child, which, unexpectedly, turned out to be a very exciting moment, because we hadn’t been given the name of the kid yet. I still remember my husband slowly unfolding the letter, looking at the picture and saying with a big smile: “it’s a boy”.

His name was Wilfrido. In the picture a little brat of about five was doing his best to show us his gratitude with a big toothless smile, even if he seemed a kind of uncomfortable in his brand new school pinafore, maybe too large for his age. Once our adopted son had materialized in that pic, we started to be pervaded by a strange sort of excitement. We began to imagine how many things we might have done for him, as providing him with a high school education and even more if he proved to be talented, Harvard, Stanford, why not? At a closest inspection of the picture, actually, the boy didn’t really look like the student type. His eyes were so lively and that pinafore he was forced in could barely discipline his free spirit. Maybe I was wrong.

I was not. Wilfrido didn’t pass the first grade that year. We were shattered, but the following years went much better. He only needed a bit more time to get used to that pinafore. When he learnt to write he began to send his own letters. He always thanked us, of course, but he particularly enjoyed telling about his life and his family. He said that it took seven miles to reach his school from where he lived, which he did on foot or on horseback when his father allowed him. He also added that he liked studying after all, but I did not believe him very much on that point, it was a sweet lie full of gratitude.

One day, Wilfrido and his family left the village never to come back again and I have never heard from him since then. I was disappointed, I felt I could have done something more for him, as if I had not been able to fulfill my task. Few years later I would have seen the whole experience from another angle. I  was in Costa Rica and I needed some directions. One boy offered to write down the address for me. He picked a pen and slowly started to move it on a piece of paper as if he were drawing. It took him five endless minutes to write that piece of information and even if we were a little annoyed at first, somehow we felt we didn’t have to hurry him. Eventually, he handed me the note. His handwriting was incredibly neat and elegant and when I met his eyes I could clearly sees a sparkle, I saw his satisfaction, pride and dignity. He might be one of the many Wifrido that people the world. Maybe I had done something good after all.

In a week time I will be back to school and I needed to tell this story to remind myself in such distressing, absurd times why I teach, because I think education can make people conscious, stronger and free and even because I feel useful every time I can see that sparkle in the eyes of one my students.

Does conscience make cowards of us all?

Hamlet is a loser. He turns out to be completely inadequate to the call to action of his father’s ghost, who wants to be rightfully revenged by his son. Yet, he had accurately chosen the most effective words to describe how his brother Claudius had atrociously murdered him and the “horrible“consequences on his body in order to stir Hamlet’s sense of indignation. Eventually, as if he doubted his son’s inclination to action, the ghost even warns him saying: “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not“. If. He was not wrong in mistrusting his son, in fact, once alone on stage and soon after a first flame of rage Hamlet hesitates and ponders :”The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,That ever I was born to set it right!”

Can the words of a ghost, even if in the shape of a beloved father, be trusted thus becoming a murderer in turn? Can it be easily accepted that an uncle, a man who Hamlet had instinctively always despised, of course, but who had recently married his mother and become the King of Denmark, might be a criminal? He wants to do what is right, which means finding evidence to his father’s words and only then planning his revenge.

To set everything right he needs time, but time could be the worst enemy of action. At first he pretends to have become mad, in order to act more freely and then he organizes  “the mouse’s trap”, that is a play to be shown at court which displays the way his father had been murdered as the ghost had told him, thus being able to check his uncle’s response at the sight of the faithful reproduction on stage of his foul crime.

Claudius cannot disguise his agitation. He had been unmasked by that nephew he had always distrusted, but how could he know it? It doesn’t matter and runs away to find refuge in the quietness of the chapel in the castle. Now Hamlet has his proof, he could accomplish his father’s task and follows Claudius to the chapel determined to kill him. He is right behind his uncle’s back  while he is in the act of praying, when he hesitates again. Is it right to murder even a criminal, while the latter is purging his soul thus having the gates to heaven open , while his fathers fasts in hell as he died unconfessed? It is not.

His forced inaction arises a bitter sense of frustration that makes him lose focus. He kills Polonius by mistake and then violently takes it out on his mother for having yielded to his uncle and married him. He behaves as a headless fly in a jar and exactly in that moment the ghost re-appears to remind his son the true object of his revenge. But it is too late. Claudius is now aware of how dangerous that nephew might be for him and quickly entraps him in a final duel. Only on that occasion, when he realizes that there no way out and nothing to lose Hamlets eventually acts and kills Claudius.

Hence, Hamlet is a loser and maybe a coward too. However, the feeling of powerlessness that pervades him and causes the delay of any action has a name: conscience. That’s why:
“………………….. the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.”

In short that means that the noble effort of following the principle of morality, trying to pursue what is right, pondering the consequences of any decision undertaken cannot but weaken our determination and expose ouselves to other’s resolutions. Hamlet once again embodies very well our sense of helplessness of this age which I perceive so “out of joint“.

 

The Abstract Principle of Equality

It was 1871 when Swiss philosopher Henry Frèderic Amiel  pondered on the nature of democracy in his “Journal Intime”. It is impressive how Amiel in few clear words nails effectively the problems implied by a representation where one is worth one despite merit, experience, education etc. and foresees the processes that will shape the world as we know it. Of course, he could not predict how the impact of modern means of communications would have made the development of those processes more dangerous and faster with the consequences we know worldwide, however, his intuition has become astonishingly and bitterly true.

“The masses will always be below the average. Besides, the age of majority will be lowered, the barriers of sex will be swept away, and democracy will finally make itself absurd by handing over the decision of all that is greatest to all that is most incapable. Such an end will be the punishment of its abstract principle of equality, which dispenses the ignorant man from the necessity of self-training, the foolish man from that of self-judgment, and tells the child that there is no need for him to become a man, and the good-for-nothing that self-improvement is of no account.
Public law, founded upon virtual equality, will destroy itself by its consequences. It will not recognize the inequalities of worth, of merit, and of experience; in a word, it ignores individual labor, and it will end in the triumph of platitude and the residuum.”
HENRY-FREDERIC AMIEL
Journal Intime”
12th June 1871

Stay Worried, Stay Foolish!

I have always been inspired by Steve Jobs’s famous speech at Stanford. So motivating. In particular by his use of the word “foolish”. For foolish he meant to be daring, creative and ready to explore paths unseen to the wise. You must be courageous and determined to do that of course, but above all: fool. That is why I can undoubtedly say that Rome has been in these last two years the splendid lab of that foolishness as Steve Jobs did mean it, especially for what concerns public administration, no joking. Let’s give some examples.

When roads  become for many reasons very dangerous as it is in Rome these days, I guess that organizing public procurements for road maintenance could be considered a wise plan, but this would be so for anybody else but the foolish. In Rome, in fact, it has been decided to solve the problem in a very creative way: reducing the speed limits thus saving the money for road maintenance. Amazing, isn’t it?. So it may happen to drive along large roads that seem highways trying not to exceed the maximum speed limit allowed of 50 km per hour, if you don’t want to be fined. Slow but safe. Of course, a lot of fb pages have flourished with the aim of alerting drivers when there are traffic police units in sight. After all, we citizens have to defend ourselves in some way and naturally, I may define foolish this as well in a certain way. Therefore, for our administration fixing road potholes is nothing but a waste of money, especially when only a shower is enough to make all the maintenance useless here. So this is what driving in Rome has become nowadays and you may understand it better if we compare it to another city like Los Angeles mostly inhabited by the wise:

sobrio= sober; ubriaco=drunk

Of course, in Rome the drunk is the one who keeps the straight line as he can’t see or avoid the potholes. Would you like another example? About 20 years ago the then Mayor Rutelli planned to retrain 100 squares, mostly in the suburbs, not only having them cleaned but also creating a lot of green spaces for families and children. Of course, even those squares and green spaces would have required regular maintenance, but unfortunately it did not happen. So, after 20 years they have become just what they used to be or even worse. The problem of green area maintenance regards also the big and famous parks and villas in Rome, the roads and sidewalks where weeds keep growing wildly and the trees which have not pruned for years. If you ventured to read the post that far I guess you have understood that it seems that there is not much money to spend on this project ( nor any other project), so what would you think the foolish have thought about?

Yes, sheep. So pretty soon my dear tourists, you might see sheep graze in Piazza Venezia or walk lazily along Via del Corso to reach Villa Borghese through traffic. Think about sheep manure especially at summer time, what a pastoral sight and smell! Don’ t forget that we are talking about the capital.

The point is that this foolishness is destined to cross the borders of the capital and become national as the party that runs Rome won the national elections almost three months ago and made a contract with the most reactionary and anti-European faction in Italy in order to rule the country. It is a very ambitious contract, indeed. First of all they aim at reducing the public debt. At last, you would say, as we have the third largest debt in the world, but how? Making reforms, reducing waste or combating tax evasion? Oh,no.That would be too wise. The foolish recipe is: not to pay, as they aim at negotiating with the BCE a cut of the public debt of 250 billions of euros for…..nothing.

Maybe, you may wonder, strategies will be implemented to stop the public debt, for sure. Not exactly, as they have in mind a “flat tax”, that is, two tax rates of 15% up to 80.000 euros and 22% if you exceed that income threshold.  That is the revenge of the Sheriff of Nottingham over Robin Hood, who is rolling over in his grave I am sure by now, as that would mean that the poorer classes will be damaged more and pay for the rich. How can it be that a footballer, for example, and a teacher are subjected to a similar tax rate?

And the poor? Don’t you worry, they will be given a sort of “basic income” of about 1.000 euros or more to stay at home. I forgot to mention that those who are holding the reins of the destiny of this country have little working experience. I don’t mean political experience, bur really working experience. One of them before becoming deputy and now candidate Prime Minister, was a steward at San Paolo football stadium and webmaster. Nothing more can be found in that C.V., but maybe I am not fool enough to understand all this.