20 December, 2007

It ain't just here

You may have heard the hilarious tale about the number of Harvard graduates (not students, but graduates) who didn't know why we have different seasons; a disturbingly high number attributed it to the distance of the earth from the sun.* You've likely heard people complaining about the price of gasoline, and perhaps you've complained yourself. Don't fret; help is not on the way, but at least you're not alone.

The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera expresses alarm that on a multiple choice test 60% of Italian students were unable to identify the reason day changes into night, and night into day. Astoundingly, 97% of Italian students pass the annual State exams nevertheless. A teacher comments below the story that, in order to give a failing grade, one has to jump through an incredible number of hoops: progressively lowering the number of requests to the point where even the student who never cracks open a book at home and sleeps during class can pass ("prendere la sufficienza"). In addition, she points out, one need only pass two courses to move on to the next grade, then singles out physical education and music as two such courses. She quotes a higher-up who remarks, "Children who do badly in school do well in life!"

If that isn't enough, the political cartoon below suggests that Italians are also irate about the cost of gasoline. The title is, The price of gasoline: the government's initiative is prayer That's the prime minister, Romano Prodi, on his knees, singing a famous Italian Christmas carol: You come down from heaven, although in Italian it can also be read as, Come down from heaven! Ironically, Romano Prodi was in a former life a professor of political science at the University of Bologna who specialized in economic issues.

I don't see what the Italians are so worked up about. As far as education goes, they're certainly no worse than we, as the steady watering-down and re-norming of our standardized tests suggests. As for the price of gasoline, most Italians live in urban areas that enjoy a fantabulous mass transit system. We dream of such things in most of the United States.** I'll ride the bus today for the entertainment value, and I'll even save money by doing so,*** but it's impractical to ride it regularly. The buses here run once an hour from 6am to 6pm.

*In all fairness to the Harvard graduates, a fellow graduate student asked me thirteen years ago why we experience winters, and without needing to stop and think I answered, "Because the earth is farther from the sun in the winter." I smacked myself on the head and corrected myself immediately once he started laughing at me, but it was an incredible embarrassment nevertheless.

It's always puzzled me why I gave such a boneheaded answer, when in fact I knew the truth. Does anyone know why? I've thought that I had heard that story already, laughed about it, then gave the wrong answer when I was asked later. However, thirteen year-old memories are unreliable. I wonder how many of those Harvard graduates knew the truth, and gave a boneheaded answer nevertheless.

**Although, to most Americans, the dream of a mass transit system must be a nightmare, considering what little support I see for it. Too many of us are attached to the freedom and pleasure associated with owning a car, and we'd rather pay a lot more in gasoline, and sit longer in congested traffic, than pay a little more in the taxes necessary to build a proper system of mass transit.

***Who cares about global warming? I'll ride the bus just to save on gas money. Mass transit is better for my bottom line!

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