Michael Cronin MRIA: Linguist29 April 2021
Professor Cronin suggests that in the case of the Irish language, the need for outdoors thinking is crucial. More broadly, instead of the relentless digitisation of education, what is needed in all areas is to take our students, our disciplines and ourselves outside. Too much thinking indoors has arguably led to the destruction of too much that is outdoors.
Michael Cronin MRIA, Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation, Trinity College Dublin
Lockdown is one of the many unpleasant consequences of pandemics. It is a source of distress, discomfort and dismay. But is the experience all that unusual? Is there not a sense in which in many ways we have been in permanent lockdown since childhood? If many indigenous cosmologies are primarily focused on the world outdoors, the history of industrialised modernity is largely about staying inside. As the French writer, farmer and activist, Pierre Rabhi, has pointed out, confinement is the defining experience of modernity. Human beings, he argues, in developed countries, de la maternelle jusqu’à l’université, ils vivent un enfermement (‘from pre-school to university they are kept inside’).1 Later, they go to work in office blocks or government buildings. They leave these buildings to get into cars that prolong this isolation from the world beyond the (wind)screen. At night they look out at that world from behind another screen—television, laptop, tablet, mobile phone. As the essayist Chris Arthur has pointed out, the result is that ‘millions of us have become more defined by the time we spend indoors than outside. As a result, we’ve lost touch with the natural world. Those with the most pronounced indoor sensibilities can’t identify even the commonest species of birds, insects and plants in their locality.’2 In my most recent work Irish and ecology/An Ghaeilge agus an éiceolaíocht (FÁS, 2019), I ask why ‘thinking outdoors’ is not a skill cultivated by our educational system. Although the primary school curriculum makes a principled effort to engage with the environment, the results are fitful at best, and by the time children are herded into the exam factory-farms of the post-primary sector, contact with the great outdoors is a distant memory of ‘nature walks’ in Senior Infants.
The need for outdoors thinking is crucial in the case of Irish. Where does most instruction in Irish take place? Indoors. What is most people’s memory of learning Irish? That of being indoors. A welcome parenthesis for many schoolchildren are the Gaeltacht summer colleges, where part of the pleasure is learning the language outside. But it remains just that, a brief parenthesis, bracketed by years of classroom confinement. We have the rich irony of students studying texts by poets and prose writers on a natural world these students never get to experience. In the understandable desire to be taken seriously as speakers of a modern language, fit for purpose in urban spaces, Irish-language speakers have been eager to shake off sentimentalised associations with the Wild Atlantic Ways of rural kitsch—setting suns, thatched roofs, beached currachs. There is a need now, however, to re-engage with the natural environment before it falls victim to the forms of indoor thinking that blind us to our vital connections with the living, organic reality of the island.
The Irish language has ample resources in terms of stories, terminology, academic studies and online materials to underpin this urgent enterprise of taking Irish thinking outdoors. A living language for a living planet is infinitely preferable to a dead language on a dead planet. Leaving Irish to languish indoors in the classroom robs it of its relevance to understanding the ecological realities, past and present, that will irrevocably shape Irish futures. The confinement of Irish speaks to a wider crisis in instruction. In The Expanding World: towards a politics of microspection (Zero Books, 2012) and Eco-translation: translation and ecology in the age of the Anthropocene (Routledge, 2017), I explore the ways in which a failure to name means a failure to care. If, in the words of the English nature writer Robert Macfarlane, our landscape becomes a ‘blandscape’ in which everything gets reduced to the generic poverty of ‘tree,’ ‘hill,’ ‘river’, then we will not even be able to identify what it is we have lost. We will literally be speechless in the face of climate change. What languages, literature and art allow us to do is not to look away but to look again.
Looking again, however, means going beyond the abstract view from nowhere, the detached gaze of the student peering out the window of the lecture theatre or more commonly, staring through the digital porthole of the computer monitor. These words are made for walking. Looking again rather than looking away means taking our educational system out of lockdown. Instead of doubling up on confinement with the relentless digitisation of education, we need take our students and our disciplines and indeed ourselves out of cyber quarantine. Instead of being screened off from the world on which they depend for their survival, they need to be brought outside—to the gardens, the parks, the ‘waste’grounds, the riversides, the hedgerows, the shorelines. Too much thinking indoors has arguably led to the destruction of too much that is outdoors. It is time we started a revolution in thinking outdoors while we still have an outdoors to think about.
1 Pierre Rabhi, 2010 Vers la sobriété heureuse (Arles, Actes Sud).
2 Chris Arthur, 2019 ‘Escaping indoors’, World Literature Today (Summer), available online at: https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2019/summer/escaping-indoors-chris-arthur (26 April 2021).
Read other Member Research Series articles
Stay up to date with the Royal Irish Academy newsletterSign up now