Saturday, March 04, 2006

Reading initiative in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl - Mexico

In their struggle to keep poorly paid officers on the right side of the law Neza’s authorities are employing an unlikely weapon: literature. Earlier this year the municipal president, Luis Sanchez, launched an initiative aimed at making Neza’s policemen better citizens. One of its cornerstones is to stimulate reading among them. Although book groups and programmes to encourage reading in jails are not uncommon, this is one of the rare schemes aimed at the people in charge of law enforcement.

To begin with, a list of "suggested books" was circulated. It included Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century classic, Don Quixote de la Mancha, as well as 20th-century Mexican novels such as Juan Rulfo’s unsurpassable Pedro Paramo and Carlos Fuentes’ gothic novella, Aura; it listed such highbrow texts as Nobel laureate Octavio Paz’s essay on Mexican culture, "The Labyrinth of Solitude", alongside modern classics including One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Among other "recommended authors" were Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Mexican detective fiction writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II.

Behind the surprising initiative lies an assumption that has been at the heart of western thinking about the arts since the Enlightenment: that literature, somehow, improves people. It is an idea that has been questioned by critics such as John Carey, whose recent polemic What Good are the Arts? casts doubt on the argument that art can make us better in any way.

Neza’s chief of police, however, believes that reading will improve his officers in at least three ways. First, by allowing them to acquire a wider vocabulary. "A policeman is responsible for communicating fluently. He must be able to speak well, even with delinquents. As his use of language improves, so will his efficiency." Next, by granting officers the opportunity to acquire experience by proxy. "A police officer must be worldly, and books enrich people’s experience indirectly." Finally, Amador claims, there is an ethical benefit. "Risking your life to save other people’s lives and property requires deep convictions. Literature can enhance those deep convictions by allowing readers to discover lives lived with similar commitment. We hope that contact with literature will make our police officers more committed to the values they have pledged to defend."

You can find the article here

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