Prudence and Obedience

Was parenting much simpler once? Who knows? But one thing I can say for sure, roles were more defined.Letter XVI from Richardson’s Clarissa is a proof of what I am saying. Clarissa has understood to be promised to old and odious Mr Solmes, a rich man, whose marriage with the girl would satisfy the social ambitions of Clarissa’s father. When the girl understands that everything has been settled, she tries  to do whatever is in her power to avoid her sad fate and decides to speak to whom she believes to be the weaker of her two parents, that is her mother, as she had found her particularly condescending at breakfast, while her father had left the house early with a “positive, angry disposition“. So much the better. Clarissa sends quickly a note to her mother to inform her that she needs to talk to her:

“I had but just got into my own apartment, and began to think of sending Hannah to beg an audience of my mother (the more encouraged by her condescending goodness at breakfast) when Shorey, her woman, brought me her commands to attend me in her closet. ( Clarissa Lett. XVI Vol. 1)

Nothing more should be said.The verbs in bold, in fact, sum up perfectly the roles and the psychological attitudes of the two characters. Clarissa’s mother is the one who commands, while the girl is expected to be submitted and humble.The meeting, which follows, in fact, respects  this pattern. Clarissa’s father had previously charged his wife to make his daughter accept the idea of marrying Mr Solmes, therefore, she approaches the meeting with the disposition of one who has to impart orders. Therefore, she mostly stands up and breaks the barrier of the roles sitting near her daughter and lowering to her level only to weak her resistance, trying to make her feel her true motherly affection with that more intimate approach, but she is ready to rise again as soon as she herself fears to yield, she is a mother after all. Clarissa, on the other side, keeps an imploring posture. She bows, kneels and eventually faints, when her mother tells her that the family, actually her father, expects her to perform her duty and that she would have soon received the visit of the head of the family whose disposition cannot certainly be defined gentle.

For a great deal of this meeting Clarissa’s mother is the only one to speak, while the girl is able to utter only few syllables, besides, whenever she essays to say something her mother doesn’t mean to be interrupted. Eventually, she lets her speak, but unheard. He is to marry Mr Solmes.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since those were the patterns of family relationships. But, how much water? What would such a meeting be like nowadays ? Well, I have no children and I cannot say, so I asked my students to give that dialogue a fresher look and these a couple of “gems” I picked:

Clarissa wants to talk with her mother about her obligation to marry a man of an important family that she doesn’t like, but the mother approaches her first.

* Clarissa, what’s the matter?

* I guess you already know what’s wrong, mom.

* Tell me.

* Mom! You know I’m so disappointed for your will to make me marry that Solmes. He’s such a creepy moron.

* Clarissa! You know it is your dad’s will, and I can’t disappoint him. And don’t use these words to describe him.

* He’s too old for me. There are many cool guys with big money in my school… and I also chat with a lot of them.

* I don’t mind.

* You can’t say that I must not marry him. It’s my life. I want to choose the man who will stay with me for the rest of my damned life.

* Clarissa, you know how it works for people like us. We can’t choose what to do about our life. It’s all about a big project for our family.

* But mom I…

* Clarissa, you are to marry him. There are no other choices.

* Go to hell mom.

Somebody shuts the door. ( Andrea T.)

You soon realize that, apart from the choice of words, this modern Clarissa is allowed to speak more than her mother and in Andrea’s imagination she cannot but have the last word. The following interpretation is more “sociopolitical” in its way, but in this case the mother prevails:

*Muuum, I have a problem, would you please come here and talk with me?

*What do you need, Clarissa? I hope it is important as  I am tidying you room!

*You already know what I want… you know… he is old and ugly… please I have a lot of suitors on Instagram!

*Yes I know but your father wants you to marry him and you are to respect and follow his will.

*I know mum but….but my friends can decide for themselves…. why can’ t I??

*Because you are different from your friends… you know… you are muslim and you are to obey or you will pay the consequences.  (Vittorio F.)

Definitely there has been a lot of water under the bridge.

 

 

On Beaters, Wooden Spoons, Belts and More….

More and more often I come across posts praising those instruments of torture which have characterized our childhood and early adolescence at least. I myself have clear memories of having experienced the entire set above and even more, as my mother – a woman half my size, who was in charge of my corporal punishments – used to throw on me whatever she found at hand, if she couldn’t have any of the above educational tools with her. I can still see the heavy, Murano glass ashtray flying towards me. She just missed me an inch that time.

The comments to those posts or pictures shared on fb are the most interesting part, as almost all of them detect a new phenomenology which is spreading among the parents of today who, actually, were the beaten children of yesterday. Those tools of awe, in fact, seem to have become in their memories sorts of magic wands in the hand of enlightened educators, who were our parents. The words are mostly  of comprehension and warm gratitude, even with a touch of melancholy.

 Now, I understand that time alters the impressions that events leave on our mind – or skin – so that we remove the worst part of it, but I would like to ask a question to all those nostalgic admirers of past and stricter systems of education:  if you do believe they worked, that somehow they helped you find the right way or become stronger,  if it is so, well, what prevents you from using them? I’ m not suggesting that your wooden spoon should become again your educational totem, it wouldn’t work and you would look like nuts, besides, there are a lot of laws to protect your children in case of injuries inflicted and THEY know it well.

The point is that today’s parents seem to be at a loss. I remember a comedian, who effectively summed up their psychological state saying that they have been the first generation to have been slapped both by their own parents and their children too. This is not far from the truth, actually, but why has it happened? What have they done to deserve such a treatment? Modern parenting has given up the idea of punishment as educational instrument in favour of a milder approach, the “let’s be friends approach” and this is very likely the core of the problem, as this orientation – and here is the observer/teacher speaking – has generated lots of confusion so far.

Educators, whether they be parents or teachers, cannot be friends of those they mean to educate. We can be friendly and listen, encourage and help, of course, but we can’t be friends, because our role naturally prevents us from being so. I know that many of you may object to this point and are ready to tell me the hours you usually spend talking with your children with – you believe – great satisfaction and success. Sorry, but  I’m afraid you are deluding yourselves. There is a line between us, a line that we adults for many reasons often pretend not to see, but it is always very visible to them. Can students be truly friend of a teacher, that is, someone who eventually judges and grades them? And for what concerns parents, do you believe that your children forget, while you are endeavouring to talk to them choosing the kindest and most loving words, that you are the one from whom depends their chance of having a new smart phone, money, Playstation etc.? That’s the line.

Trying to be friend to avoid a generational, educational conflict is a great mistake, as that conflict has always been important for the definition of characters. Growing also means to question or fight those figures whose task is to guide and teach. It has always been so. And you know what? They’ll admire your firmness , eventually – not so soon, I admit – , just like we ended up thinking our parents like heroes, forgetting the effect of the weapons the used to be so on us. They were not afraid of their role. We should do the same, unarmed, of course.

Copy,Edit,Paste.

We were very different from the students we teach, it is a matter of fact, but pray, when I say different I don’t mean better, just different. Making an effort to understand that assumption is, my opinion, essential, if we do aim at being of any help to the generations we are supposed to form. This epiphany came across my mind after the sixth school board meeting few weeks ago and after hearing for the sixth time in a row the same things: teachers complaining that their students are not able to develop any learning strategy different from memorizing useless notions which are usually soon forgotten and students complaining on the amount of homework and above all on the fact that they don’t understand what we actually want, that we should feel satisfied and praise them for the (pointless) effort they produce. At the end of these meeting each party goes home fully convinced to be on the right side of the question and the next day everything starts afresh.

Since I would like to try and work on bridging this gap between we teachers and our students, I will focus on what I consider the two most striking generational differences on which to ponder and a humble suggestion in the end. So, difference number one is: parents’ behaviour. Really, I do not understand. Whenever I have to attend P/T conferences, there is one common issue: since teachers give too much homework, parents feel somehow compelled to help their children do their homework  – if we are lucky – or they do it in their place. I’m wondering, this must be the reason why I didn’t have children, as, if after a day at work, you have to cook or look after the house and family and besides, there are your children’s homework waiting for you, well, it is hell. The parents of my generation never thought about doing our homework, for many reasons, but first of all because it was our duty and responsibility, however, they did check whether we had done what had been assigned, I can assure you and I have vivid memories about it and….bruises.

The second difference, of course, concerns the media. Being digital natives means not only that you have grown up online spending a lot of time on various social media, but also that you have developed the attitude of getting to information very fast and superficially at the same time. Messages must be simple, short, catchy  and whatever requires thought, pondered analysis is pushed aside as “démodé”. If this is the scenario, is there a solution?

Yes, there is. Learning proficiently is like making your own fix net of information and the new generations should actually have the effective digital native attitude, rather than the old Sisyphus one. Sisyphus was the king of Corinth who was punished in Hades by having repeatedly to roll a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll down again as soon as he had brought it to the summit, and this is exactly the 3 step learning strategy of most of my students have developed: study/memorize,forget,start afresh. That is why they always assume it is too much homework, because they keep on studying the same things they had forgotten, which, however, keep on surfacing even when they deal with apparently different topics.

The correct approach when you study is: copy, edit, paste. An example: if it took an entire hour to study 3 pages about the Magna Carta, I said study, not memorize, when you deal with the Petition of Rights, you’ll have just to copy the concept, edit it with the new protagonists and paste it. It will take 45 minutes this time. Furthemore, if your history teacher wishes to assign you homework on the English civil war, you already know the basic events and you’ll have just to do a little editing, hence 15/30 minutes will be enough to accomplish your task. If you studied the characteristics of English Romanticism and studied some poems, it should be quite natural to find the same issues when you study the Italian poet Leopardi, for example. In this way boredom and a great waste of time would be avoided. Homework is not your enemy, as all the time you spend on training in one of the sports you practice is not your enemy if you have goals. Working pointlessly and with no passion, that is your enemy.

 

 

On School Books

school-books

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.