Like millions of sports fans across the globe this month, I will spend several hours each day glued to my television, watching 184 skinny men ride their bycycles across France. From the last Saturday in June until the third Sunday in July, the Tour de France takes up a considerable amount of my brain space—and I’m always happy to make the room.
No doubt, in the post-Lance Armstrong era, some fans have drifted away from cycling, perhaps repelled by the stench of performance-enhancing drugs that has emanated from pro riders for the last few decades, perhaps unable to pay attention without a cancer-surviving American mega-star in the lead role.
Still, as Le Tour celebrates its centennial this year, the race will draw a massive worldwide audience. And not all those spectators, whether on the roadsides of France or sitting in front of TVs, care much about the actual competition. Even a serious fan like me can hardly say it’s the sporting drama alone that justifies the hours spent watching it.
So why do we watch? Why is the Tour de France so popular that NBC Sports broadcasts each day’s stage live (from about 6 or 7 a.m. until noon) and then rebroadcasts it at least three more times during the day, including a three-hour edited version in prime time?
The answer is France itself. TV network executives from New York to New Delhi know the polling data consistently shows that Tour viewership far exceeds the number of cycling fans out there. People tune in, the data demonstrates, as much to watch the passing scenery as to see who will win.
And why not? The 2,000-mile course runs over vast mountain ranges, across rolling countryside, through ancient villages and historic cities, without a camera catching even a passing glance of something ugly. Though surely there are ugly parts of France, Tour organizers seem to avoid them effortlessly.
The Valley, of course, is a most beautiful place, too. While the Berkshires may be small compared to the Alps, there is no shortage of stunning vistas in our region, no shortage of pretty towns largely unmarred by thoughtless development and bad zoning. It’s no wonder that Outside magazine regularly includes our region in its annual “Most Beautiful Places to Live” feature.
The question to ask ourselves is this: are we doing enough to keep our Valley beautiful?
The Tour de France showcases a country that works hard to stay beautiful, not just in select spots, but right down to its connective tissue—its roads and bridges, its retail areas and parking lots. Against the tireless drive of development, the Valley won’t stay beautiful without the same kind of hard work and vigilance.•
In this era of standardization and utilitarianism, it is heartening to hear a government-appointed committee come to the conclusion that our educational system should be placing more emphasis on the arts and humanities, particularly language.
“The Heart of the Matter,” a report on the state of the humanities and social sciences in the U.S. by the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, a panel formed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, makes the compelling argument that our current neglect of the humanities will not only diminish our quality of life, but may result in the dehumanization of future generations and jeopardize our very existence.
Over the last few years, a weak economy and poor job prospects for graduates have led to increased emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math education at the expense of the humanities. However, this report finds that “at the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences as a stimulus to invention, the U.S. is instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be—our sense of what makes America great.”
Even the most qualified experts cannot predict what the economy will look like in a few months’ time, let alone what will happen in a few years. So our education system needs to produce people capable of critical thinking who can react and adapt to situations. Key to adaptability in our global age of communications are languages and international understanding.
“How do we actually come to understand each other if we don’t share languages and the ability to speak across the boundaries of difference that language and nationality can sometimes present?” asks Earl Lewis, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which helped fund the report. The study recommends that state and local school districts establish programs to increase language learning, including immersion programs for second languages.
The report also recognizes the importance of study abroad programs, although federal funding for international training and education has been cut by 41 percent in the last four years. Every undergraduate should be encouraged to have a significant international experience. Government agencies and the military require the kinds of expertise that students can acquire only through advanced study and immersion in other cultures; business also needs the perspective and insight that only such in-depth knowledge can produce.
Thankfully, the report states the obvious: “The creation of innovative programs for teaching languages and cultures as well as the expansion of study abroad programs will require new sources of funding, and could be attractive options for public-private partnerships.”
Blended learning is the key to a well-rounded education, so we should not be pitting the arts against the sciences. We need to find a balance between them so graduates know not only how to do things, but why we should do them.•
Daniel Ward is editor of Language Magazine (www.languagemagazine.com) in Los Angeles, California.