Beauty is truth, truth beauty, is this all we need to know?

There is an afternoon which has remained impressed in my mind. I was a young and quite unexperienced teacher and the following day I was to start to work at a school where the majority of the students came from disadvantaged areas often with difficult situations. That afternoon I was suggested to attend a parent / teacher conference which was scheduled for some issues concerning discipline, so that I could have been promptly informed about that class situation, before meeting the boys, well, rather than boys, it would have been more correct to say men, as the average age of  that class, the equivalent of a twelfth grade, was 18/19.

As I was sitting in a corner of that classroom, listening to a list of some of the most bewildering life school episodes I had ever heard and wondering whether I would have ever been able to elaborate the weapons to face such a reality, my attention was captured by the innumerable drawings I could see on the walls. Those students seemed to have developed the most extraordinary talent for sketching human body, male sex organs in particular. There were at least one hundred of them, of course, of different colors, sizes and even styles, I dare say. There was one in particular, a huge one, I guess the father of them all, which stretched along the entire class, wall after wall, and majestically ended right on the class register. As I closely inspected the classroom, I could see only dirt and degradation. Many of the desks were half-broken and the blackboard chipped, but nobody seemed to notice it. They were blind and perfectly at ease, but I was not. Those drawings were the unheard voices of those students’ contempt.

Then I couldn’t help but wonder: would they have been equally destructive if their school had been more clean, organized, modern and why not, beautiful? Would they have dared take their markers and besmirch the walls again or not? Maybe they wouldn’t, if they had been taught to love and respect beauty and of course, placed in a more decent context. If beauty were a subject taught in school, we would form generations of adolescents who not only would appreciate the esthetic value of things but also their hidden ethical message. Yes, ethical, because once you have understood the importance beauty and make it a value of your life, it would be intolerable, for example, to see the dirt and the holes in the streets of your town or the beautiful coasts of your country disfigured by urbanization abuses. Your sense of beauty would not allow you to be indifferent and you would instinctively do something against all this.

Peppino Impastato, a young man and journalist from Sicily, was murdered at the age of thirty after having spent his short life to fight the mafia. He had tried to awake the consciences of the people he knew in order they could find the strength to get rid of their cowardice and that conspiracy of silence which lies in the roots of their culture. But it was in vain. Peppino understood how the love and respect of beauty would have been essential in his cultural context, that is why he wrote once :”if people were taught beauty, they would be given a weapon against resignation, fear and conspiracy of silence“.  A new “conspiracy of beauty” should come to life, hence, nobody would be left alone to fight the wrongs of any society.

The following day I met the boys of that class. They were only twelve, but when they were all in, I can tell you, they seemed a crowd to me.

Assisted suicide in Utopia

Think about a young man who for his entire life had pursued an ideal of freedom made of unconventional experiences, travels, sport and a great passion for music. A man hungry for life, a life which for him had to be a whirl of emotions rather than a sequence of strict rules of convenience and duty. That was the life he had wanted for himself and the woman he loved and the only one he had believed worth living for.Then, one day: darkness. He opened his eyes and found himself blind and quadriplegic after a car accident.

Fabiano, that was his name, tried any sort of therapy with the  hope of regaining a little independence and avoiding  being a complete burden to his family and partner. He desperately did anything he had in his powers. Nothing could ease his pain. Then, he understood: that was the only possible life he had to expect for himself for the rest of his days. He had been condemned to live in an “endless night“- these are his words – whose only way out was a door which had the name of death on. This is what he had understood and day by day the thought of death became sweeter and sweeter and even started to taste like that freedom he had dreamed for all his entire life. Of course, for anybody in his condition, it was impossible to reach that door alone, he needed the support of his family and friends, but that was not enough, as here in Italy euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal, and anybody who had endeavoured to help him would have risked 12 years in jail. He  would have needed the support of all those parliamentarians who had avoided the trouble to discuss that law which had been lying in some secret drawer for years. He wanted to die, but he couldn’t and despite the clamor on tv and newspapers, everything remained intolerably still. Till one day a helping hand from a foundation, took him to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, and set him free.

In 2017 the question about whether a man has the right to put an end to his own life, whatever the nature of his decision is, really sounds so medieval to me and the restrictions of laws absolutely pitiless.  However, it was 1516, therefore 500 years ago, when Thomas More,  a churchman, in his book “Utopia” dealt with issue of the end of life with more mercy. In Utopia “nothing is left undone” to help the sick, but for those who become terminally ill and suffer greatly “the priests and magistrates” therefore, the law and the Church hand in hand – “repair to them and exhort them, since they are unable to proceed with the business of life, are become a burden to themselves and all about them, and have in reality outlived themselves, they should not cherish a rooted disease, but choose to die since they cannot live but in great misery; being persuaded, if they thus deliver themselves from torture, or allow other to do it, they shall be happy after death”.

Well, but is this not a sin from a religious point of view? Not in Utopia, as those who decide to put and end to their life “act reasonably” and “consistently with religion for they follow the advice of their priests, the expounders of God’s will”. Hence, “those who are wrought upon by these persuasions , either starve themselves or take laudanum”. Of course, “nobody is compelled to end his life thus” and those who do not accept such an option are treated as kindly and tenderly as before. However; in case somebody commits suicide without the assent of ” the priests and senate,they honour not the body with a decent funeral, but throw it into a ditch”.

Well, despite the creepy ending, these are the most reasonable words I have ever read about the subject. After the emotional tide caused by the death of Fabiano, that law from that secret drawer was eventually taken and discussed in Parliament. There were only 20 MPs in that day.

 

 

 

Lost in Translation

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If I were asked to single out a word that better mirrors the new generation of adolescents is: activity. The average life of a teen-ager must be active, marked by an intense schedule made of sport, courses of any kind, social life etc.; to be sure they are never alone, as they are in the constant company of their smartphones which, actually, seem to be stuck in their hands. This is “a truth universally acknowledged”, you cannot deny it, therefore; the school system could not watch indifferent and above all, be static to interact successfully with such dynamic realities, hence, to keep up with the (fast) times, myriads of activities of any kind have been introduced in any school  in order to make the educational “product” more attractive. Of course, as we have discussed in some previous posts, in a daily routine, thus conceived, there is no or little room for homework, that’s why we have recently seen the birth of many debates about it.

However; what I can see is a highly committed generation, but distracted, whose life seems to move faster as if they were the protagonists of a movie but in a fast forward mode. In such a mode you can just perceive things superficially, everything is consumed quickly, becoming thus soon worthless and meaningless while you keep on moving ahead unconscious of what you are doing and why. Of course, if you watch that movie in the normal pace you have the time to see, understand and even enjoy what and who surrounds you, but the real challenge nowadays is to stop. If you stopped that movie for a while, in that single shot you would be able to see the details that would have gone missing otherwise. In that moment you would find truth, intensity, beauty and even joy. Only stopping for a while. It sounds so Keatsian, I know, but I firmly believe it.

Now I am about to suggest something, I would have never dreamed to utter or think in my teenage years, that is : among school activities, the practice of translation and in particular the translation of Latin and Greek classicals should be given greater importance. I said it. It sounds so obsolete, I know, but it is a fundamental exercise that makes you stop for a while and ponder. I feel obliged to confess that since I started to study Latin in seventh grade it was “first sight hatred”, as I could not understand the reason why I should waste my precious time in such a tedious activity. Well, it took time, but now I know. The exercise of translating and translating classicals in particular, stimulates the ability of understanding and organizing data. In that effort of giving meaning and form even the sense of beauty is thus developed, in fact, the perfect choice of a word which matches harmoniously with the rest of the sentence is an act which can be accomplished only in a “slow” time in the company of thinking and beauty.This is the reason why those who have attended grammar schools are equally proficient if they decide to study scientific disciplines at university. I know it is not an engaging or popular suggestion, but, as the old bard said: “I must be cruel only to be kind”, they will understand the importance one day. I did it. Be kind!

 

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?

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)