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Have you ever paused to wonder, when you notice in the supermarket that a long-established item on your shopping list has been repackaged with the brash slogan “NEW AND IMPROVED” (and, more often than not, a modified price tag), what might have been inadequate about the product that had given you satisfaction for years? In the case of, say, a washing powder or detergent, bona fide scientific advances leading to enhanced effectiveness and biodegradability are conceivable, but how would you respond to “new and improved” eggs, or milk, or honey? Leaving aside minor differences that arise from variations among chickens, or cows, or bees, and how they have been bred and fed or – heaven forbid – genetically manipulated, eggs, milk and honey are surely prototypes of food not subject to improvement. We do not spend our shopping lives seeking endlessly better milk, eggs or honey; good milk, eggs or honey – in other words, what is closest to the prototype our taste buds recognize and appreciate – will satisfy utterly our longing for that type of food. No sensible person will demand that farmers should constantly be experimenting with novel approaches to produce improved milk, eggs and honey, using consumers as gustative guinea pigs in the process; it suffices that they take every care and precaution to provide chickens, cows and bees with whatever they need to generate naturally the substances that are unimprovable, staple essences in human gastronomy.
I need surely not add that the association of the terms “new” and “improved”, with the fallacious implication that the former necessarily entails the latter, is no more than a transparent marketing ploy. Yet it is also an assumption that has permeated much contemporary thinking – or rather, conditioned contemporary reflexes (thinking hardly comes into it, alas) – to an alarming degree.
Some years ago I was the recipient of a form designed to serve in the appraisal of a senior administrator in an educational establishment that shall remain anonymous. Virtually every criterion by which this person’s professional performance was to be evaluated hinged on his or her ability to deliver novelty in one way or another. I was filled with a combination of dread and compassion at the thought of this hapless victim of neophilia, striving desperately each day to come up with something new and improved in the field of education as though his job depended on it (and, it would appear, it did). Of course, the educational damage an administrator can do is fortunately limited. But what if teachers were put under similar pressure or, even more perniciously, were contaminated with the neophiliac virus and embarked spontaneously and fervently on a never-ending quest for a “new and improved” education?
There was a time when immutability was the norm in educational matters. Ancient sources and assumptions were revered uncritically, and antiquity was synonymous with quality and reliability. (There is, of course, a valid case for revering and inculcating Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca, Augustine and Aquinas, which need not apply to every charlatan, quack and alchemist who happened to be alive a millennium or two ago.) Greek and Latin were the only acceptable languages of instruction, and for Ben Jonson affectionately to mock Shakespeare for his “small Latin, and less Greek” was tantamount in 1623 to alleging today that Seamus Heaney, great poet though he may be, can’t be trusted to spell correctly half of the words he employs. The prevailing dogmas of the educational establishment, hypnotized by the mindless mantra that newer is better, have undergone a sea-change in recent decades, with the depressing result that today hardly anyone can even decipher – let alone read, write or speak – ancient Greek or Latin. Worse still, scarcely anyone is even remotely interested in doing so. Plato, Aristotle and company are fast becoming vestigial names, hollow sounds devoid of identity and meaning.
But surely such irrelevant expertise in archaic languages and authors was jettisoned to make way for updated and upgraded forms of knowledge, some will argue. Perhaps they have a point – but only if we give precedence to, say, information technology – a mere medium, a humble tool – over the wisdom of mankind as crystallized in the minds of its greatest thinkers.
The current cult of modernity is, of course, not new. It is a spin-off of the so-called “Age of Enlightenment”, of the Industrial Revolution, and of dramatic XIX and XX Century developments in science and technology – two fields in which genuine, cumulative and unlimited advances seem possible. The trouble is that this assumption of exponential progress has been laid like a cuckoo’s egg in other areas of human endeavour, such as the humanities, the arts and – need I add – education, where it has hatched and swelled into a monster that is displacing the authentic, core values of these disciplines. There can be no unlimited progress in, say, history, literature or pedagogy; this is an uninformed and arrogant illusion. There are changes and fashions, there are rises and falls, there are scrupulous and slapdash practices, there is excellence and decadence, there is waxing and waning, but there is no steady, systematic, infinite process of improvement. The particular priorities of one generation simply replace the preferences of the previous one; the latest batch of freshly indoctrinated, jargon-spouting smart-asses, clutching diplomas on which the ink is not yet dry, browbeats its predecessors into acquiescence. Veterans in any educational institution have seen fad after fad come and go and come again, but when they point out that today’s “new and improved” strategy had already been introduced 30 years previously and then substituted by a refurbished version of the status quo ante ten years later, no one listens to them.
Moreover, novelty tends rudely and arrogantly to displace existing virtues or strengths rather than aggregate with them, and the putative advantages of what is new are gained only at the expense of established qualities. Learning by rote was a sacrosanct educational strategy in the late 1800s – never mind whether anything was understood. Today, in contrast, self-awareness, spontaneous self-expression and self-confidence are what is cultivated – never mind content or facts. Consequently, an increasing proportion of students is leaving school (or university, for that matter) without a clue about, for example, who Dante or Cervantes or Milton or Goethe were, when they lived or what they wrote. But at least they will be in touch with their inner selves, and speak or write with illiterate confidence about, like, whatever, and stuff like that. Know what I mean? One prays that they know what they mean.
Knowledge is, indeed, the crux of the matter. Endless soul-searching and hypothesizing in a vacuum about educational methodology and “learning to learn” is no substitute for the transmission of concrete knowledge. Thinking processes are doomed to banality and shallowness when the thinker is devoid of knowledge, of anything substantive to think about. Hence the danger of neophilia, which is inimical to knowledge, because – with the possible exception of ongoing scientific research* – knowledge is rooted in the past and is largely retrospective, whereas neophiles are indiscriminately and demagogically prospective. Neophilia is doubly damaging, because it also camouflages, packages and markets mediocrity and ignorance. Their obsession with modernity overlooks the fact that whatever is happening now is modern by definition; accordingly, the reactionary views I am expressing in this article could not be more up-to-date.
Neophilia can be harmful to your mental health, and fatal to your students’ education. But take comfort: regular doses of Dostoevsky, capsules of Confucius, potions of Pascal and shots of Shakespeare should suffice to inoculate you against its most deleterious manifestations.
* Not even scientific research, however, is immune to neophilia. Professor Jérôme Biollaz, médecin chef à la division de pharmacologie clinique in Lausanne’s Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois, deprecates the lucrative trend towards medical innovation for its own sake and adds, “ Nous vivons dans une société où l’on pense que ce qui est nouveau est forcément mieux.”(“Les géants de la pharma sont-ils des menteurs ?”, Tribune de Genève, 6th November 2004, p. 4)
A lucid, concise, incisive and timely appraisal of a pernicious trend that has accelerated dramatically in the last few decades. It should be required reading in schools and universities.