Let’s Make it Easy

Not long ago, while I was on a couch to the Dolomites, I was drawn in by a conversation between two sisters. As soon as the elder, who was I guess about twelve, caught a glimpse of the first snowy cliffs, she started to explain to her younger sister things like: how orogeny worked and why those mountains were so high. Since she wanted her to follow what she was saying, she tried to select her words carefully so as that even such a topic could sound appealing and be understood by a little girl of eight.Trust me, it was a formidable dissertation. The sign that she had been able not only to catch the girl’s attention – and mine – but also to involve her was that her feed-back was absolutely great: her little sister, in fact, kept on asking a lot  of questions which were actually quite pertinent. She was in. I couldn’t help but wonder if many of my much older students would have been able to reach that simple and effective clarity of thought, which is typical of those for whom studying means understanding rather than the dull repetition of something which has not gone beyond the level of dark matter yet.

I often mention this episode in class as an example of how I think students should approach studying, as, only when you are able to understand a topic to such an extent to make it accessible to anybody, particularly if that anybody is not that smart, you may say to have actually learnt it. That is why when I heard about the Breakthrough Junior Challenge I was absolutely fascinated. The Breakthrough Junior Challenge is an annual competition for students from all over the world, ages 13-18, which consists in submitting a 3 minute video that explains a challenging and important concept or theory in mathematics, life sciences, or physics in a very simple way.The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, therefore, Google, YouTube, Facebook .

The final prize, which consists in a scholarship of $ 250.000 for the winner,  $ 100.000 for the school he attends and  $ 50.000 for the teacher who has inspired the project of the student, is very appealing, for sure, but what I truly encompass is the message of the Breakthrough Challenge : pushing teenagers to use their creativity, technological ability and knowledge to make complexity simple in a new way or language is just amazing. So I started to wonder how I could have made the students of my school take part in the Breakthrough challenge, considering that there would have been a major difficulty for them, that is, the language, as they are Italian. At this point my beloved husband Mr Run came to my aid and decided to put aside his running shoes and turn himself into Mr Webmaster to create a brand new website for our own parallel competition, which we called “Make it Easy Challenge”)with the aim of selecting the contestants, very likely the first Italian contestants, for the Breakthrough.

The next step was to convince the students to join the challenge, and this, trust me, was the difficult part. The admirable colleague, who has supported me in this new project, and I had tried, at first, to captivate them showing the prospects they could have: being the first Italians to take part in the challenge or even, why not, winning the scholarship and go to Los Angels and so on. They seemed genuinely attracted by the idea, but, they eventually kept on hesitating. Something had to be done, so we resolved upon using the most effective weapon teachers and parents have in their hands: threat. Magically about 100 videos came out of the blue and I can proudly say, some of them are very good. Afterwards, the  videos have been watched and voted by the same students who had made them and the 25 chosen will be judged by the other students of my school, hoping that they will join next year edition, and a panel of Maths, Physics and Life Sciences teachers. The winners will the celebrated at the end of this month. So one thing I can say for sure: Mark Zuckerberg, watch this : www.makeiteasychallenge.it! We are coming!

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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?