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Ancient Greek, Greta Thunberg And The Gift Of Education

Should schools add new subjects every year to keep up with the times? Or is their job simply to help students become critical thinkers? A new mother's musings.

Greta Thunberg at a protest in Sweden
Irene Caselli

MONTE CASTELLO DI VIBIO — When Greta Thunberg appeared in our lives, telling us how urgent it is to fight against climate change, I was in awe. I love how clearly the Swedish teenager exposes her arguments, bringing it always back to herself and her younger sister, Beata. I love her as much as right-wing media outlets despise and ridicule her.

I guess that part of my awe has to do with the fact that two decades ago, when I was Greta's age, I was an activist myself. At 13, I ran in school elections and became the youngest student representative at my school in Naples. When I was elected, an older male student who had lost the election threw a coin at me asking me to step down. Another one suggested that I was a simple secretary because as a girl I could only follow the lead. In my school, it was the boys who occupied political positions. I was young and insecure. I found it hard to speak in public with clarity, to cite facts and make my arguments coherent.

In my school, it was the boys who occupied political positions.

At the time, we high school students were fighting against the pro-market policies of then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Many times I longed to learn about economics, politics and other subjects that would make my speeches more profound and real and would actually make a difference during our strikes. I rummaged through my parents' bookshelves and tried to tackle Karl Marx"s Das Kapital, which was far from current but was referenced constantly in the political meetings I attended. I read all the newspapers I could put my hands on, but I still felt I was missing out.

I happened to be studying at a liceo classico, a humanities-focused high school, where I spent most of my week learning Latin, ancient Greek, Italian, philosophy and history. Nothing more remote from current realities — at least in theory.

Over the years, there have been continuous calls for Italy"s Ministry of Education to drop ancient Greek and Latin as school subjects, and to scrap the liceo classico as an option. Every year, as the end-of-year exams approach, Italian papers ask whether the liceo classico makes any sense at all, and whether so-called dead languages can teach young people anything.

Italy is not alone in questioning what to do with its heritage and how to teach it. Similar debates have taken place in Greece, for example. Ancient Greek used to be compulsory in schools. That's no longer the case. Questions have even come up in Egypt about the study of ancient Egyptian history, reports Mada Masr. A survey of young Egyptians showed that a majority felt negatively or simply didn't care about learning ancient history in school.

A 2010 photo of Italian students protesting at a railway station in Pisa – Photo: jerik0ne

In Italy, one argument is that liceo classico students tend to forget most of their Greek and Latin as soon as the final exam is over. That is surely my case: I can still read the Greek alphabet, and Latin is relatively easy to decipher as an Italian speaker. Beyond that, though, I simply don't remember much.

But is this the way to assess whether a subject is worth it or not? I now speak four languages fluently and am quite advanced in another two. Did learning Latin and Greek help develop my linguistic skills? I would say it did. The brain is not a muscle, but it surely works like one: The more you keep it exercised, the more you can learn.

The brain is not a muscle, but works like one: The more you keep it exercised, the more you can learn.

Beyond personal considerations, school curricula are of course political. Every time there is an attempt to scrap a subject from schools or introduce a new one, there is some sort of pushback.

This is what is happening now with sex education around Latin America, with a political crusade against implementing it in schools. Even in Argentina, where sex education is a compulsory part of the school curriculum, a movement called "Con mis hijos no te metas' (Don't mess with my kids) holds regular marches to put pressure on schools and local authorities not to implement the sex education law. Parents in the movement say sexual education will teach their children to "become gay" or masturbate at a young age.

In Colombia there was pushback regarding the introduction of history as a compulsory school subject. And of course there is always the issue of how history is taught, and what history.

Tim Engartner, a didactics of social sciences professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, has been counting the requests to introduce new subjects in German schools. "The fact is that there is hardly any discipline that has not been requested to be made into a separate subject in school," Engartner told the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung. Requests included subjects such as nutrition, climate change and even behavior.

It may be because I am a new mother, asking myself what I expect my son to receive from his formal education, that these issues are on my mind. It is also true that little Lorenzo is just three months old, and education systems evolve very slowly. So here I am, reminiscing about my school years, reflecting on what I learned and what has stayed with me.

Even though they may be lost in some remote corner of my brain, I cannot say that Latin and Greek are part of my everyday thoughts. I have no doubts, however, that my effort all those years ago to learn them, and the constant translation exercise, gave me the basis for what was to come.

Sir Ken Robinson, the British education specialist whose presentation Do Schools Kill Creativity? is one of the most popular Ted Talks ever — 57 million views and counting — argues that formal education can become a trap. Among other things, he says that schools should offer a broad enough curriculum so that each child can be encouraged to find her own passion.

Sixteen-year-old Greta clearly found hers by watching documentaries and reading books, most of which weren't assigned in school. And the success of her message goes beyond the content of her statements. The young climate activist is telling the public facts that we have been hearing for over a decade now. What makes her message different is the passion she puts into it.

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A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[*Lithuanian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.

📣 VERBATIM

It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

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