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.
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.