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Lego, Ergo Sum

Lego, Ergo Sum

Reading critically has never been as critical as in our times. We live in a world where 86% of all people over the age of 15 are literate, more than 5 billion people have mobile phones, and 23 billion text messages are sent and received per day. Six billion emojis are embedded into communications daily as additional pseudo-text, as are the millions of GIF and short videos crossing the Internet every second. Our globally literate digital times are the era of “Scribo, Ergo Sum” - I write, therefore I exist – where billions of people declare daily and abundantly “I exist” through bits typed on various media. In this climate, taking information at face value becomes a grab ‘n go survival must, critical reading and thinking flounder, us versus them factions flourish, and history is un-shelved from memory faster than fashion fads.

Current Grade 12 student, Naomi Greenberg, the 2018-19 winner of the George Henning-Ross annual essay competition on the topic “Why Reading Matters”, recognizes the critical value of reading, especially in our times. In her essay, she asserts that reading is “the key to understanding our past, our world and ourselves,” and observes that reading “has facilitated significant change throughout history and will continue to do so.” 

Naomi cites research showing that humans have a natural tendency to trust the written word, and argues that “this trustworthiness makes reading persuasive – and when people are persuaded, they act (…) The success of ‘fake news’ is an overwhelming example of how quickly we trust the written word and use it to influence others.” She believes that “in the age of technology, reading has become even more crucial,” and “Instead of allowing technology to diffuse our enjoyment of reading, we can use it to expand written knowledge, emotion and culture.”
The present scale and scope of online reading, writing and publishing is cosmic and a radical departure from the times when a powerful elite able to read and write interpreted and recorded the stories of humankind. Presently, the daily outpourings of billions of online authors, who are also instant publishers, shape narratives that conform to less than 180-character formats and a binary language of like/dislike, friend/unfriend, follow/unfollow, true/fake. Good writing and critical reading have become antidotes to the reductionistic online languages that blunt our humanity and blur our sense of shared history, culture and responsibility. “The topic ‘Why Reading Matters’ doesn’t scratch the surface of how interesting it is,” says Naomi.

Launched annually each fall, the essay contest was founded by the late George Henning-Ross, former FIS English teacher and a uniquely inspiring and pivotal person in the life of many of his students and colleagues. Besides the personal joy of writing, and the growth involved in the effort to write well, writing the winning entry yields other big benefits. “It’s a great asset for university entry – another feather in your application cap,” says Aodhnait Donnelly, FIS Writing Center Coordinator. 

After the submission deadline, IB teachers read all the entries and the winner is announced in the last assembly of the academic year. Winning is on par with sports prowess, potentially worthy of a college scholarship, and comes with a €1000 prize – a satisfying reward and not a negligible sum to add on to college living funds, as Naomi did. “You earn it yourself, with your own work, and it’s a very different feeling from being given the money,” she says, adding “it was a straightforward bank transfer and it’s in my bank account. I’m saving it for living expenses – university in the United States is very expensive!”

Aiming to win was not Naomi’s main motivation to enter the competition and pride was not her first emotion upon hearing the good news. Her decision was based on a mix of passion and pragmatism: a clear win-win, risk-free proposition. “I enjoy writing, I had the time to write over the Winter Break, there was a potential winning benefit, and it didn’t take time from anything. It was a very clear choice. There was the opportunity – so why not take it?” Upon hearing the good news, Naomi felt humbled. “I felt so honored – I didn’t expect it! A lot of my friends are very good writers, so it was a fun thing to do, but I wasn’t expecting to win. I felt so grateful to the teachers who took the time to read it!”

The yearly “Why Reading Matters” essay contest is available to all FIS students in grades 10-12. The personal rewards are big, but there’s more. Writing about “Why Reading Matters” matters a great deal because our times need good writing, writing built on a plurality of well formulated ideas that promotes critical reading and, implicitly, critical reasoning. Good writing in our times is also activism: to preserve and promote the nuanced complexity and wide range of our human understanding, emotions and societies, away from the reductionism that erases our history and our agency over our individual selves. To reinstate the enlightenment of Descartes “Cogito, Ergo Sum” – I think, therefore I exist – we need good writers to summon its twin: “Lego, Ergo Sum”. I read, therefore I exist. Or, more precisely: Lego Critico, Ergo Sum. I read critically, therefore I exist.
Another win-win opportunity will be launched later this fall – so why not take it?

Maria Monteiro
FIS Parent


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