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2009 is the 500th anniversary of Jean Calvin’s birth, and from all over Europe pilgrims in their hundreds of thousands are currently pouring into Geneva in a state of fervent anticipation. I am generally tolerant of the transcendental emotions of others, but from my viewpoint, as a commuter between the small lakeside town of Nyon (founded by Julius Caesar in 50 B.C. for the veterans of his cavalry) and Geneva, this phenomenon is something of a nuisance.
Traffic on my 20 km. stretch of autoroute is far from fluid at the best of times. Typically, up to half of it is generated by drivers from Ain and the Haute-Savoie, the two neighbouring départements in France, as one can tell from their license plate numbers. But this week, every region of France is represented in the terminally congested motorway. So are all 26 Swiss cantons, from mighty Zurich to tiny Appenzell Innerrhoden. So is every far-flung European country you can think of: Norway and Greece, Portugal and Ukraine, and everything in between – not to mention a sprinkling of Turkish or Qatari vehicles spicing up the air with their exotic fumes. Indeed, the traffic right now is so dense that, paradoxically, there is no particular advantage to be gained by taking the train; you can read, say, the International Herald Tribune on your way to work even more comfortably at the steering wheel of your immobile car, which at least guarantees you a seat.
I rather suspect that Calvin would have frowned on pilgrimages as an idolatrous, papist practice, and would in no way have wanted his name to be associated with them. If so, he can rest in peace within his austere, almost anonymous grave in the Cimetière des Rois: I daresay that no more than a few hundred faithful are likely to drift into Geneva this year with him in mind. The mass migration of people in their automobiles to which I refer, notwithstanding its rituals, its zeal and its ecstasy, is untainted by misguided Christian impulses. Its source of inspiration is solely the Car, and its shrine the colossal Palexpo centre, where the Geneva Motor Show is held every March.
In The Canterbury Tales, horses are fairly prominent, and it’s obvious that Chaucer expects readers (or listeners) readily to deduce from the description of each pilgrim’s steed his or her social rank or pretensions. But frivolous displays of status notwithstanding, the formal pretext that made “folk longen to goon on pilgrimages” was religious – in this particular case, to pay their respects to the martyr St. Thomas à Becket, and not to ogle in reverential awe every deity in the equine pantheon, from the Anglo-Arabian thoroughbred to the Lithuanian Heavy Draught.
You might argue that at least there is no whiff of pious hypocrisy in the Geneva Motor Show; it’s all about pure, unabashed, in-your-face hedonism. The state-of-the-art characteristics of most of the cars clogging up like cholesterol the arteries, veins and capillaries of Switzerland’s small-scale highway network is such that, by the time they reach the Motor Show itself, drivers will already have seen, crawling alongside them, just about every conceivable and insolently ostentatious model of Porsche, Audi, Jaguar, Maserati, Mercedes, Cadillac, Bentley – you name it – hot off the assembly line. As part of a bizarre onanistic rite, thousands of people flock to Geneva to see on display the cars they have already bought.
And, one should add, endlessly to photograph them with their compact cameras and mobile ‘phones, rather like earnest Catholics might point their lenses at Benedict XVI. But surely there is a key difference in the underlying motivation. Futile though their best digitally recorded efforts might be, the worshippers in the Vatican are trying to capture and preserve a glimpse of the successor of St. Peter, whom they regard as their only tangible link with Christ; there is a perhaps naïve but spiritually sincere purpose in collecting blurred pictures of the Holy Father. What exactly the 700,000 Geneva Motor Show pilgrims do with the vast archives of sleazy supercar snapshots that they take back home is anyone’s guess.
I grant you that in Europe, at any rate, faith-based pilgrimages nowadays are not necessarily bona fide, and possibly they never have been. Millions visit Lourdes or Fatima in a pragmatic frame of mind, seeking miraculous cures when medical science fails. Many, if not most, of the amiable eccentrics who still trek to Santiago de Compostela in the 21st Century are anxious to make it clear that they are not satisfying a specifically religious need (God forbid!) but merely an ineffable craving for something different. All this is eminently harmless, however, when compared with the Geneva Motor Show’s annual transhumance. From an ecological perspective, to drive hundreds or thousands of miles, bumper-to-bumper with other cars, in order to see yet more cars, is rather like hobbling lepers congregating from all over the world to admire the multifarious disfigurements their disease can cause, with a view to spreading new and improved strains of the illness.
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)