Progression or Regression?

I fell asleep. I fell asleep and for a couple of months I have been lulled by the sound of waves, sun kissed. I fell asleep and fluttered every single day on leisure-land where a pleasant and reinvigorating breeze weakened any attempt of the few sensible thoughts left hidden somewhere in a synapse of my dormant brain to make me quit that state of bliss. I would have slept even longer, in fact, but for that annoying bell, a school bell, actually , which forcibly brought me back to the dullness of the real world and duty. Good-bye leisure-land, I must go, uncertain of my fate.

When you have to start afresh, it is advisable to begin with baby-steps, something effortless and pleasant, if possible, at the same time, to break the ice, otherwise one always tends to postpone the initial effort, which is usually perceived as huge. I thought that filing all the works, projects, power points I had left scattered on the computer the year before would have been a good start and so I did. While watching the screen, I couldn’t help but wonder how technology had actually helped me beat my natural disorganization ( and laziness); in fact , all the school years with papers, tests etc. . were there, beautifully ordered before me. It is memory. Whatever I needed , with a click it was at my disposal.

And I clicked. I don’t know whether it was an evil school-elf or just curiosity which induced me to do so, but I clicked on year 2015 first, 2010 then to get to the early twenties and then I stopped, a bit puzzled. Evoking memories, even working memories can be cruel sometimes.  What remained of that summer state of bliss and dizziness definitely faded away as the facts were plainly before me and needed to be assessed.    

What facts? To make myself clear let’s take a class as example: the third year of high school , average age 16 and let’s follow how learning and expectations have changed in these last 25 years. I have always enjoyed reading Romeo & Juliet at this stage, as the theme of love is captivating and it is a good starting point to get to know Shakespeare, but how has the way I do it changed in time and why?

LATE NINETIES: in those years I was a devout reader of the Arden Shakespeare editions with all those beautiful notes and explanations, hence, I wanted all my students to have one. Despite it was not so easy to find it as we are in Italy and there was no Amazon then, they found a way to get one eventually, all of them . As far as I can remember they enjoyed the accurate study of lines and sources of Romeo and Juliet. How do I know? Well, the following year they asked me for more, so I infer, they liked it. But, did it really matter in the late nineties whether students really enjoyed or not a lesson?

EARLY 2000s: all of a sudden it seemed  it had become quite hard to find the Arden edition anywhere, hence, I told them to buy whatever edition they could find, I would have provided them with the missing information . Of course,  there were always two or three students in the class  who managed to find the Arden edition, but the decline was now inevitable.

LATE 2000s: As in the last years I had found hard managing to read the entire play by the end of the school-year, I decided that they could have used a bilingual edition. We would have read and analysed the most important parts in class in English, while the rest could have been done even in Italian if they wanted, and they wanted .  After all, the knowledge of the main themes of the play was what really mattered I said to myself. It seemed a good compromise to me.

EARLY 2010s: These where the years when school started to be overloaded with projects of any kind, hence, as I was always running out time I decided that the reading of Romeo and Juliet would have been limited to the “Balcony scene” and the end of the play. I also made them watch the catchy “Romeo and Juliet version”  with Di Caprio. It seemed they truly enjoyed it. I was satisfied.

LATE 2010s: I thought it was I good idea to make them act  the “Balcony Scene” and shoot a video. I chose 6 couples e six directors, one for each couple, and gave them the lines. They shot from the balconies of their homes and eventually the films were assembled together with soundtrack, titles, backstage funny moments etc. . It was creative, it was fun. I was proud of them – and myself.

COVID YEARS: on-line learning has required a new way of communicating in order  to be effective. Words couldn’t but go hand in hand with images to be catchy. In this respect I have found useful GIMP,  a cross-platform image editor which I have adopted to embellish my power points. For Romeo and Juliet I decided to take and edit some shots from Di Caprio’s movie and create a sort of photo novel of the “the Balcony Scene” and make  William Shakespeare himself comment and explain the lines of the play:

It was fun, I have fun exploring the news frontiers of learning, I must admit it,  but looking back to what I used to do almost 30 years ago, I cannot help but wonder: what chances of success would my precious Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet have with today’s students? How should I consider all this process of continuous adaptation to new generations’ educational needs a progression or a regression in learning ? Are these needs real or I have simply surrendered, choosing the shortcut of light entertainment? Is it possible that eventually I am the one to be blamed?

Courses and Recourses

The Grand Saint Antoine

On May 25 the The Grand Saint Antoine was in sight at the port of Marseille.The port authorities had been waiting for the ship feverishly for hours, till they eventually saw it approach slowly. Everything was ready. It was not the precious cargo of fine cotton, silk and other goods their main concern, but rather, the ghost of the bacteria Yersinia pestis the ship carried on-board.

The vessel had sailed from the Lebanon to reach  Smyrna, Tripoli and Cyprus months before collecting goods destined for a trade fair that took place each year in the commune of Beaucaire.  They had been informed that a Turkish passenger had been infected and died, but soon some crew members and even the ship’s surgeon had followed his destiny. Once in Livorno the ship was refused entry to the port and now there it was, in all its frightening aura. Yet, they knew they were ready this time. Everything had been prepared meticulously for decades.

Since the end of the plague of 1580, the people of  Marseille had taken important measures to attempt to control a future spread of the disease. It was not certainly the first time that the plague had made its devastating appearance in the continent. A sanitation board was established by the city council, and it was put in charge of the health of the city. Public infrastructures were built, like the public hospital of Marseille, furthermore, the sanitation board was responsible for the accreditation of local doctors too.

A control and quarantine system was also defined. Members of the board were to inspect all incoming ships and only the ships with no signs of disease were allowed to dock, but if the ship’s itinerary included a city with documented plague activity, it was sent to the lazarets (quarantine stations) for a minimum of 18 days. When The Grand Saint Antoine gently steered towards one of them, the members of the board couldn’t but smile with relief and satisfaction.

But, what about the fair? What about all those who had invested all their money on the goods kept on-board? Could such an important event like the fair be cancelled? You know the answer too well. It couldn’t. Powerful city merchants, in fact, wanted the silk and cotton cargo of the ship for the fair at Beaucaire and pressured authorities to lift the quarantine. The city’s primary municipal magistrate, Jean-Baptiste Estelle, who owned part of the ship as well as a large portion of its lucrative cargo used all his influence to organize the premature unloading of the cargo into the city’s warehouses, so that the goods could be sold soon at the trade fair.

What happened afterwards can be easily imagined: the number of infections and deaths began to climb within days exponentially. This pandemic had become a serious threat  to the entire economy, hence, instead of undertaking emergency measures to try to contain the infection, officials launched an elaborate campaign of disinformation, going as far as hiring doctors to diagnose the disease as only a malignant fever instead of the plague. Yet, the truth couldn’t be hidden for long as hospitals were quickly overwhelmed, residents carried the sick out of the city, mass graves were dug and the number of dead was so high that  thousands of corpses lay scattered  around the city. The tragedy was now visible.

It wasn’t until two months after the first cases of bubonic plague appeared in Marseille that appropriate measures were undertaken such as: trade embargoes, quarantines, the prompt burial of corpses, the distribution of food and aid, and disinfection campaigns using fire, smoke, vinegar, or herbs. At last the Grand Saint-Antoine was burned and sunk off the coast of Marseille.

The disease killed about 126.000 people. While economic activity took only a few years to recover, as trade expanded to the West Indies and Latin America, it was not until 1765 that the population returned to its pre-1720 level.

If we want to make a parallel with our equally “contaminated” times, nothing apparently seems to have changed, in the main dynamics at least: lies, the prevalence of economic interests over those of people, mystification, corruption, ignorance, disinformation.

As philosopher Giovanbattista Vico claimed, man’s attitude remains always the same, even if historical situations and behaviours change. What seems new in history is only comparable by analogy to what has already manifested itself as if in an eternal circular motion in which nations rise and fall. Nations eternally course and recourse through this cycle passing through these eras over and over again. So, if he is right, we are done.