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‘The World in a Selfie’ Review: The Trouble With Tourism


Two years ago, Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker published a long article, “The Airbnb Invasion of Barcelona,” that addressed some of the challenges of unfettered tourism. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Barcelona, year over year, found itself steadily drowning in foreign visitors. Short-term rentals on Airbnb, often illegally operated, filled the city’s apartment buildings and depressed the local housing supply. Barcelona’s main tourist draws, including Park Güell and the Sagrada Familia Church, were thronged by enormous quantities of visitors.

In the summer of 2014, spurred by the drunken antics of holiday-makers, protesters took to the streets to bring attention to “the pestilence of young visitors who came to Barcelona not to sample the local culture but to enact internationally recognized tropes of partying.” Three years later, 60% of Barcelona residents claimed in a survey that the city had reached or exceeded its capacity to host tourists.

Hating tourists is nothing new, as the Italian journalist Marco D’Eramo notes in “The World in a Selfie,” translated into English by Bethan Bowett-Jones and David Broder. Mr. D’Eramo quotes a British magazine article from 1848 lamenting that, for all their merits, the advent of the railroad and the steamboat had “afflicted our generation with one desperate evil; they have covered Europe with Tourists.” Adam Smith, in his “Wealth of Nations” (1776), heaped mocking scorn on the vogue of young men gallivanting around the Continent on so-called Grand Tours.

“The World in a Selfie,” first published in 2017, has been updated in this English-language edition to account for the pandemic, which shut down international travel for a year. Mr. D’Eramo highlights tourism’s paramount role in the world economy, smartly observing that Covid “proved the centrality of tourism through tourism’s omission. Once this industry ceased, not only airlines and shipping companies but aircraft manufacturers and shipyards found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy.” The book, “an inquiry into the tourist age,” is somewhat disjointed, moving distractedly at times from topic to topic and losing the thread in the philosophical weeds. But in its more focused moments, “Selfie” makes for a bracing, provocative examination of an all-too-human pastime.

One recurring theme here is our futile search, through travel, for the “authentic.” Mr. D’Eramo saves his most biting commentary for UNESCO and its “World Heritage” listings, which he likens to a “kiss of death.” “Once the label is affixed,” he writes, “the city’s life is snuffed out; it is ready for taxidermy.” That’s hyperbole, no doubt, but his commentary on the unintended consequences of preservation is compelling.



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Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt review – lockdown’s high notes | Books


In spring 2020, as Covid-19 spread fear and infection around the globe, seismologists were able to track “a wave of silence passing over the earth, its course exactly following that of the virus”. According to Steven Lovatt, silence descended on Britain, perhaps for the first time since the Industrial Revolution: “Finally, the earth could hear itself think, and the voice of its thought was song.”

The pandemic struck in the northern hemisphere just at the moment when birdsong was resuming after the bleak winter months. That “strangest spring” will be remembered not just for the new virus, but as the time when the nation became aware of birdsong. Silent streets and gardens were filled with “a rising choir of chirps, trills and warbles”. People shared recordings made on their phones of “the woozy fluting of blackbirds” and “the deep purring of wood pigeons”.

Lockdown also reawakened Lovatt’s passion for birds. As a child he had been awestruck by the starlings that roosted in Birmingham during the winter: “They swirled and pulsed in the sky-space between concrete towers as though a dark dough of poppyseeds was being stretched and kneaded by invisible hands.” By his teens he could identify most British birds. But then his interest faded – until last year.



Katie Marland’s illustration of the Skylark, from Birdsong in a Time of Silence. Photograph: Katie Marland

Beautifully illustrated in black and white by Katie Marland, Birdsong in a Time of Silence begins early in the morning of 24 March, the day after normal life in Britain was suspended. Lovatt’s slim yet wonderfully evocative book records his walks and observations of nature and birds during the spring and summer, drawing on poetry, folk songs, myths and science to reveal the key role birdsong has played not just in our culture, but our life-worlds.

Lovatt points out that birdsong probably hasn’t changed much since the stone age. It has been the soundtrack to the evolution of our species: “It’s part of our feeling of belonging in the world … we have birdsong in the blood.” It is a reminder of the natural world and “the circular, seasonal time that never ceases to follow its own patterns”. Today, being able to recognise birdsong, such as the insistent alarm calls of the blackbird when it spots a cat, enriches one’s understanding of the world “by revealing an almost forgotten aspect of the grammar of reality”.

Birdsong also shapes our identity as individuals. The songs and calls of birds that Lovatt encountered on his lockdown walks bring back childhood memories, such as waking in his grandmother’s house in the 1980s and hearing the calls of house martins nesting in the eaves “which reminded me of the working of knitting needles”. In its ability to spark forgotten memories and connect us to nature, birdsong is, says Lovatt, both “plainly mystical and profoundly ordinary”.

House Sparrow.



House Sparrow. Illustration: Katie Marland

Lovatt deftly captures the character and personality of the birds he describes: from the ubiquitous blackbird, whose song can be heard across the land and forms “an essential ingredient” of what we know as home, to the “strange and magical” sound of skylarks, the “guttural croaks” of herons, and the “chatters, pop-gun detonations and saucy whistles” of starlings, who he says “have arguably the greatest repertoire of any British bird”.

There are 220 bird species that breed in the British Isles and as many as a quarter migrate here. Swallows fly from South Africa, some 6,000 miles away, to grace our skies. Quite how they navigate remains a mystery. In the era of climate crisis, fewer are migrating. The corncrakes and quail that Lovatt’s grandparents would have heard are less common today, as are the nightingales and turtle doves that his parents would have listened to: “I’ve never heard any of these species in Britain.”

Habitat depletion and the catastrophic decline in insect numbers means there are millions fewer birds in the country than when Lovatt was a child. As well as a big ecological problem, this impoverished soundscape is “a great loss for our sense of who we are as human beings”. Our idea of summer was once defined by the sound of birds such as cuckoos and turtle doves, “the aural equivalent of a heat haze, the gentlest corrugation of air, always just on the edge of your hearing”.

This is a joyous and profound meditation on birdsong and what it means to us, a book that brings to life an essential part of the natural world that most of us take so much for granted that we scarcely notice it.

Birdsong in a Time of Silence is published by Particular (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.



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Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes review – a new understanding of humanity | Books


Homo sapiens’ relationship with our long-lost relatives the Neanderthals has undergone a lot of rethinking since our relatively recent reintroduction in 1856. Until then, three years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, we had no idea that they existed. Thanks to the Parisian anatomist Marcellin Boule, who “inaccurately reconstructed” a skeleton in 1909, the popular image of them has been of an ugly creature with a stooped spine and a “decidedly ape-like” appearance. Now, a blink of an eye later, we know that many of us – at least, those without sub-Saharan heritage – carry between 1.8 and 2.6% Neanderthal DNA. So it’s reassuring to read that these people whose genes we share were not the brutish caricatures of Victorian myth, but complex, clever and probably caring individuals with a lot to tell us about human life.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes has studied their landscapes, territories and tools and emerges as an expert and enthusiastic character witness for Neanderthals and their way of life. In Kindred she looks at their “life, love, death and art”; and in the light of the fascinating evidence that is painstakingly presented here it seems likely that they had sophisticated tools, built home environments, art and ornamentation, family structures and possibly even “a richer culinary world than ours”. There is even evidence that they tidied up. Neanderthals probably didn’t have PR, but they do now.

Neanderthals became a distinct population 450,000 to 400,000 thousand years ago, and lived all over the world from north Wales to China and Arabia, in climates ranging from glacial to tropical, until about 40,000 years ago. They were shorter than we are, with strong arms for working hides and fine motor skills for making small tools, but probably saw, heard, smelled and possibly even spoke much like we do. With a sketch and a short piece of fiction at the start of each chapter, Wragg Sykes paints a vivid picture of life as lived by a Neanderthal parent, hunter or child. She doesn’t just want us to see Neanderthals for who they (probably) really were; she wants us to see their world through their eyes.



A reconstruction of a Neanderthal, created for the Natural History Museum, London. Photograph: Richard Gray/Alamy

The prose is a combination of the scholarly and the writerly, combining dizzying amounts of information about different types of stones, tools, bladelets and flakes with sentences such as “Squabbling crossbills and crested tits yielded to crass jays and mellifluous nightingales, until cold mornings saw clattering capercaillies sending breathy vapour into biting air.” The knowledge condensed here is certainly impressive. “The sheer amount of information is hard to process,” Wragg Sykes writes. “Few specialists have time to read every fresh article in their own sub-field, never mind the total scholarly output.” She describes, for example, how archaeologists refit tiny fragments of knapped artefacts back together like “an immense 4D jigsaw puzzle” to see how Neanderthals worked stone tools; what isotopes in dental calculus tell us about their diet and smoky fires; and how microanalysis of soil samples suggests careful placing – if not technically “burial” – of the dead. It’s clearly a subject that encourages and repays obsessive interest.

Understanding Neanderthals’ place in history is important to show “how evolution didn’t follow an arrow-straight Hominin Highway leading to ourselves”, and to skewer white supremacist notions that sprang up around our early (mis)understanding of who different types of humans were. It is hard, though, not to draw some warnings for humanity from the fate of our near kin. Did Homo sapiens only thrive because of our larger and stronger social networks – “being welcome at the fires of friends many valleys away” when things got tough? Did Neanderthal populations collapse after one climate change event too many, and how might we survive our own? Or might they have been killed off by “a terrible contagion” that jumped between species? Sadly, we don’t know, though the next discovery may be the one to tell us. Until then, Wragg Sykes concludes, Neanderthals will continue to function as “the shadow in the mirror … a multispectral reflection of our hopes and fears, not only for their apparent fate, but our own”.

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art is published by Bloomsbury Sigma (RRP £20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.



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‘The Amateur Hour’ Review: Hire Teachers for Higher Education


As the pandemic has forced most colleges and universities to adopt remote instruction, it’s worth remembering that more than 50 years ago some schools voluntarily experimented with remote instruction via televised classes. That did not go well either. Students did not feel the same connection to their instructors and that, in turn, made a difference in what was learned. “It’s better to have a poor instructor in the classroom,” said one unhappy professor in 1967, “than to have a good one on TV.”

The vignette comes from

Jonathan Zimmerman’s

“The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America.” Mr. Zimmerman, an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania, has braided together a smooth narrative from many short pieces of thread, consisting of glimpses into the experiences of faculty members, students and administrators from the early 19th century up through the 1990s, and encompassing two- and four-year institutions, large and small, elite and not. The book is economical in its presentation of materials, gathered from 60-plus archives, and even-handed in presenting the gripes of instructors and students.

The book’s clever title refers to the way that higher education, when hiring, evaluating and rewarding faculty, gives most attention to research productivity and little to teaching effectiveness. Partly this is due to the difficulty of measuring effectiveness in the classroom, but it is also due to the resistance of faculty members to having their teaching reviewed by peers—something that would, Mr. Zimmerman says, “make their teaching truly professional.”

“The Amateur Hour” begins with the recitation model of college teaching, which was near universal in the early 1800s. Students were asked to read an assigned passage and then, at class time, recite either a summary or, some professors might insist, the passage in its entirety. When lectures began to displace recitation, some college presidents worried aloud about the problem of keeping students actively engaged throughout the class session. The Yale Report of 1828 wondered whether the student attending a lecture “may repose upon his seat and yield a passive hearing . . . without ever calling into exercise the powers of his own mind.”



Photo:

WSJ

The Amateur Hour

By Jonathan Zimmerman

Johns Hopkins, 294 pages, $34.95

As more students enrolled in higher education, hiring did not keep pace. Class sizes grew, and students had less contact with professors. Previously, faculty members at small liberal-arts colleges knew every student on campus and could demonstrate personal concern for them. By the late 19th century, however, many American faculty members were trained in Germany and brought back with them a passion for research, as well as more interest in libraries and laboratories than in students. In 1887,

Julius Seelye,

the president of Amherst College, lamented the changes: “Education is a wholly personal work. It is not gained by books, or by instruction alone, nor by anything in place of the living inspiration of the living teacher.”

By 1900, the demotion of teaching in institutional priorities was so pronounced that the headline for an editorial in the Nation magazine declared, in uppercase letters, “THE DECLINE OF TEACHING.” Ten years later

David S. Jordan,

the president of Stanford University, conceded that “the young instructor has been urged to place as many printed pages as possible to his credit” and “encouraged to look with scorn on the ‘mere teacher’ who cares for the intellectual welfare of the students.”

Worse, the better an instructor was at teaching, the less standing he had in his discipline. An Ohio State dean wrote that same year that “there is a rather wide spread notion in American Universities that a man who is an attractive teacher must in some way or other be superficial or unscientific.”

The leitmotif that runs through Mr. Zimmerman’s narrative is that class sizes continued to grow and grow and grow: The economics proved too compelling even for liberal-arts colleges, the last bastions of small-batch instruction, to ignore. The largest classes have been at universities, of course, and since the early 20th century these institutions have been trying to counterbalance the worsening student-instructor ratio with honors seminars, independent study, small-group tutorials and other more personalized formats. But these programs also required assigning many more students to very large classes. “If the colleges are to ask society to support a more individualized type of instruction,” wrote

Homer L. Dodge,

a physicist and dean at the University of Oklahoma, in 1932, “college professors must be willing to learn the technique of handling large groups of students.”

Foundations funded many 20th-century initiatives to improve college teaching, but a lack of knowledge of what was needed for excellence stymied these efforts. “We perhaps can recognize it when we see it,” said one University of Minnesota professor, “but we cannot draw up a bill of particulars beforehand.”

New technology, at various junctures, has briefly promised a means of giving every student personalized instruction—and freeing the amateur instructor to pursue research in his discipline. Mr. Zimmerman brings to light the evangelism of psychologist

Fred S. Keller,

who in the early 1960s developed a template for self-paced college courses that he called the Personalized System of Instruction. But self-paced classes required considerable self-discipline of the students, and though PSIs enjoyed a vogue in hundreds of places in the early 1970s, course completion rates were dismal.

Mr. Zimmerman has been honored for his teaching and is an active participant in a teaching-improvement initiative at his home institution. But even he fumbles for words when trying to describe what makes a great college teacher. It requires a “distinctive rapport” with students, he says, but also “a kind of mystical presence that cannot always be defined but also cannot be denied.” Also worth noting for our Year of the Plague: He believes that the ineffable, energizing spark of education cannot be conveyed via computer connection, but only face-to-face.

Mr. Stross is the author, most recently, of “A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees.”

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